Why a ‘back to basics’ approach to pancreatic cancer research can save more lives

Pancreatic cancer is a truly tough challenge for researchers. The disease has the lowest survival rate of the 20 most common cancers, and less than seven per cent of patients in the UK will live beyond five years. Survival rates have shown very little improvement since the early 1970s. There are very few treatment options for patients, and we have not seen any dramatically significant advances in treatments for decades.

That is why finding new treatment options is such a vital priority in pancreatic cancer research. But in the context of the scale of the pancreatic cancer challenge, in order to reach that goal, we must approach research into the disease in a new way. We must further understand more about the basics of the disease; how and why tumours grow and the disease spreads. We need research which makes a fresh start, and investigates the nuts and bolts of the disease. Once we further understand that, we can begin to pinpoint the processes in the disease that need to be targeted in order to put a stop to its spread. That is the first crucial step in creating new treatment options for patients.

Searching for clues

A team of researchers at the University of Southampton, funded by Pancreatic Cancer UK, the Masonic Samaritan Fund and PLANETS Charity, have been investigating the complex processes which take place inside the body of a pancreatic cancer patient. They have uncovered some intriguing clues which could help us solve the mystery of how pancreatic cancer cells move around the body.

The team looked at a particular substance called αvβ6, which sits on the surface of pancreatic cancer cells. The researchers, led by Dr Jo Tod, identified for the first time a link between this substance and another called Eps8, which is found in over 70 per cent of pancreatic cancers.

Dr Jo Tod from the University of Southampton

Dr Tod and her team found that a high level of Eps8 can help certain cancer cells to move — encouraging the spread of the disease — by working with αvβ6. The team also discovered that a low level of Eps8 helped αvβ6 to ‘wake up’ another substance in the body called TGF-β, which is known to be an important player in the growth and spread of pancreatic cancer. TGF-β can both suppress tumour growth and allow cancer cells to move around the body, depending on the stage of the disease.

Significantly, the researchers have revealed Eps8 to be a double-edged sword in pancreatic cancer; a ‘switch’ which can ‘turn on’ and ‘turn off’ the movement of cancer cells by working together with αvβ6. It is now essential for us to fully understand exactly what is going on here. By doing so, we can then pinpoint which part of that process should be the target for a new treatment.

Another piece of the puzzle

There is still so much that we do not understand about how and why pancreatic cancer develops and progresses. Research like this is truly crucial in helping us to get closer to the development of new treatments in the future.

These results have opened up a very promising lead in our battle against this disease. I hope that the pancreatic cancer research community will take up the baton passed on by this research team, and join us in taking on pancreatic cancer together.

Pancreatic Cancer UK donated over £47,000 to the University of Southampton research thanks to a grant from the Masonic Samaritan Fund, with the donation being matched by PLANETS Charity.

The full results of the research are published here in the Journal of Pathology.

By Leanne Reynolds, Head of Research at Pancreatic Cancer UK