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Research sheds new light on protein’s role in initiating pancreatic cancer

5 February 2013

An international team of scientists has shown that the well-studied protein Sirtuin-1, known for helping cells live longer, also appears to play an important role in pancreatic cancer.

The pancreas is made up of cells that secrete digestive enzymes, known as exocrine cells,  and cells that secrete hormones such as insulin.  The new study, published in the journal Cancer Research, focuses on the role of the protein Sirtuin-1 in exocrine cells, which can develop into pancreatic tumours.

In normal exocrine cells, the behaviour of Sirtuin-1 is inhibited by another protein, but as pancreatic cancer develops, Sirtuin-1 disconnects from that inhibitor, allowing it interact with other proteins that may help the cancer to grow and survive.

Dr Elke Wauters, from the Diabetes Research Centre at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium, and her colleague Dr Ilse Rooman, from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, are the first to study Sirtuin-1 in the initiation and progression of pancreatic cancer.

After examining its behaviour in mice and in cell cultures from human tumours, they believe that inhibiting Sirtuin-1 may help prevent the initiation of pancreatic cancer, as well as preventing the further growth of established tumours.

"While this is basic science, we believe our findings are important in progressing the understanding of how pancreatic tumours develop and may translate into new therapeutic strategies," said Dr Rooman. She said that Sirtuin-1 inhibitors are already in Stage II clinical trials for another disease, which means that they have already been shown to be safe for use in people.

“That is excellent news as far as we are concerned, because it takes so much money and time to get a drug to that stage, and we believe this type of drug might be important in treating pancreatic cancer."

However, she also noted that Sirtuin-1 is a multi-faceted molecule, playing different roles in different tissue and cell types, and its activation has been shown to have benefits in metabolic disease and in some other cancers. “While we don't address this point in our paper, there are also clinical trials underway for drugs that activate Sirtuin-1, especially for treating type 2 diabetes, and we believe it's important to signal its potential harm as far as pancreatic cancer is concerned," she said.

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