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New study sheds light on why pancreatic cancer is so aggressive

19 January 2015

New research from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center has uncovered a gene involved in driving cancer growth and spread, helping to explain why pancreatic cancer is so lethal.

The researchers found that a gene known as ATDC is involved in nearly 90 per cent of pancreatic cancers and plays a major role in the way that tumours progress from a preinvasive state to becoming invasive and then metastatic, where the cancer travels to other parts of the body.

Lead researcher Dr Diane Simeone, who is director of the Pancreatic Center at the University of Michigan, said: "We know that patients with the earliest stage of pancreatic cancer have a survival rate of only 30 per cent. This suggests that even in that very early stage of invasive cancer there are already cells that have spread to distant parts of the body.  This study sheds important light on what it is about pancreatic cancer that makes it so aggressive early in the game."

Using mice bred to develop a more human form of the disease as well as human pancreatic cancer tissue samples, the researchers found that ATDC was expressed  both in some of the pre-invasive cells and played a role in the development of pancreatic cancer stem cells - the small number of cells in a tumour that fuel its growth and spread. The team’s findings suggest that ATDC promotes a tumour's invasiveness and spread early in the course of disease.

The researchers believe that ATDC could be a target for the development of new drugs and are already working with colleagues at the University of Michigan Center for Structural Biology to further understand the crystal structure of the protein, which will help them to design new drugs to block it.

The study is published in the journal Genes and Development.

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