Skip Content

Landmark cancer study shows how pancreatic cancer cells feed their growth

16 May 2013

Pancreatic cancer is one of many cancers to feature a mutated protein called Ras, which plays a role in the molecular chain of events that leads to cancer cell growth. Ras cancer cells need large quantities of nutrients to grow and survive, but how they are able to cope with the demand for so much nutrition has been unclear until now.

In a study published in the journal Nature, led by Cosimo Commisso, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU School of Medicine, researchers have been able to show how Ras cancer cells use a process called macropinocytosis to absorb the protein called albumin, from which they harvest amino acids that are essential for cell growth.

Macropinocytosis is a process whereby drops of fluid and their contents are absorbed deep into cells in special sacs called vesicles and converted into energy. The study suggests that Ras cancer cells are particularly dependent on this process in order to grow and survive.

During experiments, when researchers blocked the macropinocytosis process in mice with pancreatic tumours - and therefore the route for the uptake of albumin - the tumours stopped growing, and, in some cases, shrank. In addition, the researchers also found that pancreatic cancer cells in the mice contained far more vesicles to transport nutrients deep into the cell compared to cells from healthy mice.

The discovery of a protein-absorbing mechanism which is unique to some cancer cells could lead to the development of drugs to stop the absorption process - and could also result in new ways to deliver chemotherapy directly into cancer cells – all without harming healthy cells.

“This work offers up a completely different way to target cancer metabolism,” says principal investigator Professor Dafna Bar-Sagi from NYU Langone Medical Centre. “It’s exciting to think we can cause the demise of some cancer cells simply by blocking this nutrient delivery process.”

This study was partly funded by the US charity, Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and involved researchers from MIT, University of California at San Diego, the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Princeton University.

< Back