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New study shows zinc suppresses pancreatic cancer cells

26 August 2011

The essential element zinc has been shown to be a potential tumour suppressor in the most common form of pancreatic cancer, according to new research.

The essential element zinc has been shown to be a potential tumour suppressor in the most common form of pancreatic cancer, according to research from the University of Maryland. 

Published in the current issue of the journal Cancer Biology & Therapy, the study describes how the researchers detected a decrease in zinc in cells in the early stages and at the advanced stages of the cancer.

"The report establishes for the first time, with direct measurements in human pancreatic tissue, that the level of zinc is markedly lower in pancreatic adenocarcinoma cells as compared with normal pancreas cells," says lead author Professor Leslie Costello of the University’s Department of Oncology and Diagnostic Sciences.

"The fundamental implication is that we now know something about the development of pancreatic cancer that was not previously known," he said. "It provides a potential approach to treatment, that is, to find a way to get zinc back into the malignant cells, which will kill them." 

The scientists further uncovered an important genetic factor that could potentially be used to develop an early diagnostic tool. Pancreatic cancer cells shut down a zinc transporting molecule called ZIP3, which is responsible for guiding zinc through the cell membrane and into the cells. The researchers have discovered an early genetic/metabolic change in the development of pancreatic cancer. Cancer researchers previously did not know that the ZIP3 gene expression is lost in malignant pancreatic cells, resulting in lower zinc.

The study follows many years of research collaboration between Professor Costello and his colleague Professor Renty Franklin. Previous research has focused on the zinc relationships with prostate cancer, and this latest study was started in 2009 after substantial evidence emerged that zinc might be a tumour suppressor in the development and progression of some cancers.

"We wondered why malignant cells show a lost ability to take up zinc," said Professor Franklin. "Certain levels of zinc are toxic to the malignant cell." The researchers say their work suggests the possibility of developing a chemotherapeutic agent for pancreatic cancer that will allow zinc back into the malignant cells, which would destroy them.

The newly discovered involvement of the changes in the ZIP3 gene expression may ultimately help detect both pre-malignant and early stages of cancer development. "The fact that we see the loss of the zinc transporter and a decrease in zinc in the early stages of the cancer indicates that those changes occur even before the cancer is evident. The genetic changes and the changes in zinc levels occur before the pathologist will see any changes in cells under the microscope. That is the kind of early biomarker that people need for cancers," said Professor Costello.

The study team plans more studies of pancreatic cells at various stages of cancer development and also animal studies before planning clinical trials. Costello explains, "We still need to show that we have a way to get zinc into the malignant cells."

The journal paper, titled Decreased zinc and down regulation of ZIP3 zinc uptake transporter in the development of pancreatic adenocarcinoma is available online at

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