(dailyRx News) The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer isn't a good one. It's really tough to conquer. That once Herculean feat may become easier thanks to recent animal research.
Pancreatic cancer is so difficult to beat because it spreads quickly and harbors stem cells that don't respond to conventional therapies. Researchers have found a way around this stubborn problem and identified a pathway that can be targeted with drugs to kill off the cancer stem cells - at least in mice.
This pathway doesn't play a role in cancer, but in embryonic stem cells. Cancer stem cells apparently use this system, known as the Nodal/Activin pathway, to start multiplying out of control. Researchers believed that targeting this pathway could kill just the cancer stem cells and not harm healthy adult cells.
Christopher Heeschen, of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid, and colleagues demonstrated that when the signals from the Nodal/Activin pathway were blocked in human pancreatic cancer stem cells, those cells started to respond to chemotherapy.
Next, they tried this in mice that had developed tumors after being injected with human pancreatic cancer stem cells. Chemotherapy, along with a pathway inhibitor, worked to kill the cancer stem cells. Treated mice survived 100 days, compared to untreated mice that died within 40 days.
When cancerous tissue was implanted in the mice, this dual therapy didn't work. But when a third therapy was added, the mice experienced what researchers called "long-term, progression-free survival."
Another interesting discovery from this study showed that tumors didn't actually shrink or disappear. Rather they became just like dead tissue, incapable of forming new cells, according to Heeschen.
As a result, Heeschan says the notion that tumors "will melt away" after treatment "must be abandoned." He goes on to hint that this embryonic pathway may be useful in treating other cancers.
This study was published in the November issue of Cell Stem Cell, a Cell Press publication.