Skip Content

Researchers identify gene that makes normal pancreas cells change shape

23 February 2015

An international research team from the US Mayo clinic and the University of Oslo in Norway have identified a molecule that makes normal pancreatic cells change their shape, paving the way for pancreatic cancer to develop.

The study is reported in the prestigious journal, Nature Communications, and its authors believe that finding a way to inhibit the gene, known as protein kinase D1, or PKD1, and its protein, could prevent the growth and spread of pancreatic cancer – and may even reverse the shape changes it causes.

"As soon as pancreatic cancer develops it begins to spread, and PKD1 is key to both processes," said study author Dr Peter Storz, a cancer researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Florida. “Given this finding, we are busy developing a PKD1 inhibitor that we can test further."

"We need a new strategy to treat, and possibly prevent, pancreatic cancer. While these are early days, understanding one of the key drivers in this aggressive cancer is a major step in the right direction," he said.

Pancreatic cancer can develop when acinar cells (pancreatic cells that secrete digestive enzymes) change into duct-like structures. This usually happens after injury or inflammation of the pancreas - and this is a reversible process. However, the presence of signals from genes associated with cancer formation, such as Kras mutations, can drive these duct cells to develop lesions that increase the risk of tumours developing.

The research team used a 3D computer model of mouse pancreatic cancer cells to test the effects of PKD1 and both blocked and stimulated its activity to see what would happen. They found that after a week of  stimulating its activity, the acinar cells had changed shape into duct-like cells. When they blocked PKD1, the formation of duct-like cells and lesions decreased.

"This model tells us that PKD1 is essential for the initial transformation from acinar to duct-like cells, which then can become cancerous," Dr Storz said. "If we can stop that transformation from happening—or perhaps reverse the process once it occurs—we may be able to block or treat cancer development and its spread."

< Back