Researching the cures


Dr Eithne Costello

Dr Costello's team is exploring the role of microRNAs - molecules thought to help prevent stellate cells from forming protective barriers around tumours.

Project Title: Involvement of microRNAs in the activation
of cancer-associated pancreatic stellate cells

Project Aims: Pancreatic tumours are helped in their growth and spread by star shaped cells called pancreatic stellate cells. These cells produce lots of proteins in the presence of cancer cells, causing a fibrous network of connective tissues to form. Treatment of the cancer then becomes difficult as drugs cannot gain access to the tumour, which is protected by a fibrous barrier.

The connective tissues seen in pancreatic cancer are not dissimilar to those seen in liver cirrhosis, where liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue. This disease has been researched in more depth than pancreatic cancer. As such, researchers found that molecules called microRNAs (miRs) are key in preventing the star shaped cells of the liver from producing lots of protein which form a fibrous network. Knowing this, Dr Eithne Costello believes miRs may also be important in preventing connective tissues from forming in pancreatic cancer.

Dr Costello has collaborated with scientists in her university and in Germany to study levels of all known miRs in the pancreas and blood. From studying 290 patient samples, the levels of certain miRs were found to be altered in patients suffering with pancreatic cancer. This leads the team to believe that changing the levels of specific miRs might prevent fibrous networks from forming around the tumour.

Dr Costello and her team will use PCRF funding to study whether production of miRs is regulated in pancreatic stellate cells, as it is in liver stellate cells, and how this changes when the pancreas is cancerous. Dr Costello hopes this will identify specific miRs that control the behaviour of the stellate cells and possibly lead to a treatment to slow down the growth and spread of cancer cells.