Experts recently discovered a specific gene that may be the key to slowing down pancreatic cancer growth.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most severe types of cancer there is. It can be very challenging to treat, especially if surgery isn’t an option.

A new study published in Nature found that turning on the specific gene GREM1 could help reduce the spread of pancreatic cancer. Conversely, switching off the specific gene could result in a greater spread of pancreatic cancer.

Per the researchers, this new breakthrough can lead to the development of new treatments for the disease.

The study was done on mice and organoids or synthetically grown and simplified organs. The researchers examined the influence of a specific gene on the most common type of pancreatic cancer: pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). They found that as cancer spreads, it changes from epithelial to mesenchymal, impacting the effectiveness of medication and aggressiveness of the disease.

Among mice with pancreatic cancer, the cancer switched from epithelial to mesenchymal state within days when GREM1 was removed. In contrast, when the gene was overexpressed, the cancer reverted back to the epithelial state.

While the researchers noted that the data was limited, they were optimistic that the breakthrough discovery could improve the understanding of how possible variations could lead to better treatment options.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACA), diagnosing pancreatic cancer during its early stages is often difficult since the pancreas is deep inside the body. Some people also don’t get symptoms until the cancer has already spread.

At all stages, pancreatic cancer has a low five-year survival rate of only 11%. However, that survival rate climbs to 42% if the tumor is still localized or hasn’t spread to other areas yet. In some cases, removing the tumor is possible via surgery.

For Dr. Arif Kamal, the chief patient officer with the American Cancer Society, the current focus is on how to stop pancreatic cancer from spreading to other parts of the body, given that it can be challenging to catch and treat early.