Pancreatic cancer is a particularly vicious disease. Because the pancreas is nestled deep within the internal organ cavity, identifying the tumor early is a rare occurrence. In fact, over half of the diagnoses occur after the disease has spread to distant parts of the body. As a result, there is only a 9% five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer. Researchers have remained stumped on finding accurate screening and effective treatment methods as pancreatic cancer continues to rise towards the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. All hope is not lost, however. Determined researchers have adamantly been working on identifying the biology of the disease to create effective treatment options for pancreatic cancer patients. While there is still a long road ahead for pancreatic cancer research, recent breakthroughs offer a shimmer of hope in identifying and combating the disease.
Drug Development Discoveries
Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine (UVSM) and UVA Cancer Center have been vehemently working to understand how pancreatic cancer cells fuel their growth since 2012. In mid-2019, they finally struck gold in their research. Previous studies identified a specific gene in prostate cancer, referred to as the RAS gene. When this gene is present, the anatomy of the cancer cell changes. The mitochondria, referred to as the powerhouse of the cell., changes shape when the RAS mutation is present. The changes in the mitochondria were recently found to aid the cancer in establishing itself, an occurrence that is quite rare in other cancers.
While there is limited research in how drugs can exploit such changes in the cell, these findings offer a hopeful outlook for pancreatic cancer treatment options. Knowing now that the changes and division of the mitochondria fuel the growth of pancreatic cancer introduces a new weakness of the disease. The research team at UVSM and UVA Cancer Center determined that blocking these changes within the cell prevented tumors from growing and spreading. For the few cells that would continue to grow, the interference with the mitochondria resulted in a loss of function. Currently, drugs targeting this mutation are only in the very early stages of development. While there is a long road ahead in developing these drugs, understanding the biology of pancreatic cancer cells creates another launch pad for further investigation into how to exploit this newly discovered cancer cell weakness.
Identifying Genetic Patterns
While the UVSM/UVA Cancer Center research team were identifying weaknesses in pancreatic cancer cells, researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute were focused on recognizing at-risk individuals. Approximately 10% of pancreatic cancer cases have a familial pattern. Few of the genetic mutations have been identified, leaving most of the mutations a mystery. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute research team, however, recently identified a rare inherited genetic mutation that could pave the way for further genetic discoveries.
While studying a highly cancer-prone family, the researchers identified a rare genetic change referred to as RABL3. Though RABL3 is relatively rare, the presence of this inherited mutation dramatically increases one’s risk of developing prostate cancer as well as other cancers. Currently, available screening options for pancreatic cancer are frequently inaccurate. False positives are common with the current invasive methods, and the prevalence of the disease is quite low amongst the general population. The identification of inherited mutations means that at-risk individuals can be identified, and screening can be more specifically targeted. Identifying this mutation offers hope to families with unsolved hereditary cancer.
Show Your Support
Even with recent breakthroughs, there is still a long way to go in the war on pancreatic cancer. The National Foundation for Cancer Research is proud to fund extraordinary research efforts in pancreatic cancer screening and treatment. Ongoing clinical trials have been moving forward in improving survival rates in locally advanced pancreatic cancer, one of the toughest forms of pancreatic cancer. Of course, continuing research efforts of this vicious disease relies on the support of many. To make a donation in honor of National Pancreatic Awareness Month, please visit www.nfcr.org/give.