Over 90 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. But top research scientists at the University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center have just identified a gene overexpressed in 90 percent of pancreatic cancers, and the discovery will enable them to develop more effective therapies to treat the disease.
When comparing pancreatic cancer cells to those in a healthy pancreas, expression of a gene called ATDC is on average 20 times higher in the cancerous cells. The gene is also believed to make pancreatic cancer cells resistant to current therapies.
“We found that ATDC not only causes cancer cells to grow faster and be more aggressive, but it also makes the cancer cells particularly resistant to chemotherapy and radiation,” Diane Simeone, director of the Multidisciplinary Pancreatic Cancer Clinic, wrote in a press release. “By targeting this gene, we may be able to make cancer cells more sensitive to the therapies we already have in hand.”
The researchers studied the effects of the gene by injecting tumor cells into mice. One group of mice received cells where ATDC was expressed while the other group received those where it was suppressed.
Tumors grew on all the mice that were injected with ATDC-expressed cells. In the group where the gene was not expressed, there was no significant tumor growth after 60 days.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 37,680 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, with roughly 34,000 fatalities.
But Simeone said in a phone interview that she hopes the clinic’s research could change that, and plans to start implementing new therapies at the clinic within the next five years.
The researchers at the clinic are focusing on two approaches of developing new therapies for pancreatic cancer, Simeone said. The first would be to develop a drug that would inhibit the expression of ATDC. They could also target the gene without a drug by using a method called nanopartical delivery to treat patients.
Simeone said they have been researching this particular gene since 2002. Although she said she is optimistic about the possibilities, she was hesitant to say how important this breakthrough will be in the long run.
“I think there are a lot of steps forward that we have thought have been significant,” she said. “Only time will tell as to how critical a role this particular protein plays in pancreatic cancer.”