Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly and misunderstood of all cancers, but thanks to a new study, we now know a key factor in the cancer’s pathology — how it grows. The research discovered exactly how pancreatic cancer tumors interact with their environment in order to ensure maximum growth. What’s more, the team believe that they may be able to prevent this process, a finding that could lead to new treatments and perhaps even a cure for this notoriously hard-to-treat cancer.

Tumors, like all living organisms, need a stable, nutrient-filled environment in order to grow. As revealed in a study, now published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pancreatic cancer tumors use stromal cells, which are the cells that make up connective tissue in organs, to speed up their metabolism and cause epigenetic changes to their DNA. All this helps the tumors to grow and spread, and further harm a patient.

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"The tumor is essentially hacking into that stromal microenvironment and grabbing what it needs to up its metabolism," says Michael Downes, a Salk senior scientist involved in the research, in a recent statement.

Once the team figured out how the tumors were able to grow, they devised a way to block the signals from the stromal cells, thus cutting off the tumors' main food supply. The team used a drug called JQ1 which is already known to be able to block some of the epigenomic changes they saw in pancreatic tumor cells. When the drug was added to a 3D culture of a pancreatic tumor, it was able to reverse the genetic changes that the stromal signals induced.

The team took their research one step further and tested JQ1 on mice with pancreatic tumors. To their delight, tumor growth was slowed.

Pancreatic cancer is deadly and has the worst five-year survival rate of any major cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about 53,670 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017, and of those, about 43,090 will die from their disease. It affects the pancreas, a gland organ that helps to produce important enzymes and hormones involved with digestion. Although the results from this study are exciting, it’s important to keep in mind that it still remains unknown if they can be repeated in human patients. However, the team is eager to find out and plan to further test both their finding and the effects of JQI on pancreatic cancer tumors.

Source: Sherman MH, Yu RT, Tseng TW et al. Stromal cues regulate the pancreatic cancer epigenome and metabolome. PNAS . 2017

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