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Researchers identify sub-type of pancreatic cancer and a potential treatment

20 September 2013

A potentially treatable sub-type of pancreatic cancer has been identified by a team of Australian researchers.

Cancer cells sometimes produce multiple copies of particular genes in response to signals from other cells or their environment, a process known as gene amplification. The Australian research team has identified that just over 2% of pancreatic cancer patients have high level amplification of the HER2 gene. This gene amplification is also found in breast and gastric cancers and treated with the drug Herceptin.

Published in Genome Medicine, the study reports how the team identified a pancreatic cancer patient with high level HER2 amplification, then sequenced the tumour to confirm the specific region of the genome that contains HER2.  From there, they conducted microscopic analysis of tissue changes in tumour samples previously taken from 469 pancreatic cancer patients, which produced standardised guidelines for testing HER2 in pancreatic cancer - and found that 2% of these samples were also HER2 amplified.  In addition, they found that the cancers of these 2% tended to spread to the brain and the lung – just like breast cancer patients identified as having HER2 amplifications – rather than to the liver, which is more usual with pancreatic cancer.

The genetic sequencing data generated by the project was analysed further, and compared to sequences from other cancer types. The results revealed that HER2 amplification was seen in 2% of 11 different cancers.

The team believes that as a consequence of this discovery, patients could be selected for clinical trials based on the molecular features of their cancer  - such as a specific gene amplification – rather than which part of the body is affected by cancer.

The team was led by pancreatic surgeon Professor Andrew Biankin from Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research and the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Cancer Studies, in collaboration with Dr Nicola Waddell, from the Queensland Centre for Medical Genomics at the University of Queensland, pathologist Dr Angela Chou and bioinformatician Dr Mark Cowley, also from the Garvan Institute.

The Garvan Institute is already recruiting pancreatic cancer patients to test personalised medicine strategies, with potential clinical trial participants being screened for specific genetic characteristics – including high levels of HER2. Once these characteristics are confirmed in these patients, they will be randomly allocated to receive standard therapy or a personalised therapy based on their unique genetic make-up.

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