Cancer: Scientists find way to ‘reverse’ spread of pancreatic cancer – symptoms to spot

Olivia Williams discusses ‘bizarre’ symptom of pancreatic cancer

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They discovered that a protein called GREM1 is key to regulating the type of cells found in pancreatic cancer. It was then found that manipulating its levels can both fuel and reverse the ability of these cells to change into a more aggressive type. The researchers, from The Institute of Cancer Research in London, believe this “fundamental discovery” could ultimately pave the way for new pancreatic cancer treatments.

As part of their work, which has been published in the journal Nature, the team were able to “switch off” the gene that makes the GREM1 protein within pancreatic “mini-tumours” and in mice.

In both cases this caused the tumours to become more aggressive and spread more quickly.

For example, around 90 percent of mice without functioning GREM1 developed tumours which had spread to their liver, compared to 15 percent of mice where GREM1 was working normally.

Crucially the scientists then showed that boosting GREM1 levels could reverse this process and cause invasive cell types to revert into a less dangerous form.

Professor Axel Behrens, leader of the cancer stem cell team at the institute and senior author of the study, said: “This is an important and fundamental discovery that opens up a new avenue for uncovering treatments for pancreatic cancer.

“We have shown that it is possible to reverse cell fate in pancreatic cancer in the lab – turning back the clock on aggressive tumours and switching them to a state that makes them easier to treat.

“By better understanding what drives the aggressive spread of pancreatic cancer, we hope to now exploit this knowledge and identify ways to make pancreatic cancer less aggressive, and more treatable.”

The researchers, who work in the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at the institute, stressed that the science is in its “early stage”, and “significant amounts” of research would be required to discover and develop future treatments.

Chief executive of the institute, Professor Kristian Helin, added: “Pancreatic cancer is one of the most devastating of all cancers – the most common form of the disease spreads aggressively, making it hard to treat and a terrifying diagnosis for patients and their loved ones.

“This new finding has broadened our understanding of the molecular basis of how pancreatic cancer gains the ability to grow and spread around the body.

“Although more work is required, this type of fundamental research is essential for developing concepts for new and more effective treatments for cancer.”

The team also discovered that another protein, called BMP2, is involved in regulating GREM1.

They proved that these two proteins regulate the form pancreatic cancer cells ultimately take, according to a mathematical model first proposed by Alan Turing in 1952.

These “Turing patterns” are found in nature – from the patterns on the skin of the giant puffer fish to seashells – and the same sort of patterns are seen in the different types of cells found in pancreatic cancer.

But further studies are needed to determine whether this model is also applicable in other forms of cancer.

According to Cancer Research UK, pancreatic cancer is when abnormal cells in the pancreas start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way and forms a growth (tumour).

“The cancer cells can grow into surrounding blood vessels or organs such as the small bowel,” the charity says.

“And may spread to other areas of the body.”

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Pain in the stomach area or back
  • Yellowing of the skin or whites of your eyes (jaundice)
  • Unexplained weight loss.

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