Scientists may have discovered the “Achilles’ heel” of pancreatic cancer – a condition which is notoriously difficult to treat.
Researchers believe a protein called leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF) plays a key role in the development of pancreatic tumours and could be a useful target for drugs.
The study, published in the journal Nature, suggests the protein is present in high levels in the blood of human pancreatic patients and could also be used to help detect the disease.
Advanced pancreatic cancer can have no symptoms and is often diagnosed too late, when it has already spread.
“We believe that LIF is the Achilles’ heel of pancreatic cancer, because it serves such an important role in the tumour,” Professor Tony Hunter, from the Salk American Cancer Society, said.
“It could serve two purposes, one as a diagnostic biomarker of pancreatic cancer, particularly the state of the disease, but it could also serve as a therapeutic target.”
There are two important cell types in pancreatic cancer, Prof Hunter said.
These are tumour cells that grow “as small nests”, and stellate cells which secrete proteins to form a barrier around the tumour.
The researchers, from the Salk Institute in California, said that LIF appears to be significant among these proteins.
They carried out studies in mice which revealed that blocking or destroying LIF slowed the progression of the tumour and led to improvements in responses to chemotherapy drugs.
High LIF levels were observed in humans in both the tumour tissue and blood of pancreatic cancer patients, the study found.
These levels were significantly linked to the progression of the tumour and how the patient was responding to drugs, the authors said.
That means it could be used to help doctors determine the stage of the cancer or whether a treatment might be effective.
Prof Hunter added: “There haven’t been very many advances in pancreatic cancer therapy because it’s a difficult cancer to diagnose and treat.
“Understanding this communication network between the cancer cells and stellate cells may enable us to develop more effective therapies, along with tools for earlier diagnosis.”