By Jason Bardi, UCSF News Office | April 11, 2011
Solving part of a medical mystery, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have established a link between molecules found in an inflamed pancreas and the early formation of pancreatic cancer - a discovery that may help scientists identify new ways to detect, monitor and treat this deadly disease.
Scientists have known for many years that pancreatitis, a painfully inflamed pancreas, is a common risk factor for pancreatic cancer -- along with things like smoking and diet. But nobody knew exactly why.
Now the UCSF team, led by Matthias Hebrok, PhD, has discovered at least part of the connection. In an article appearing in the journal Cancer Cell this week, they show that two molecular "signals" produced abundantly in the pancreas during inflammation -- a protein named Stat3 -- helps initiate the early stages of pancreatic cancer, while another protein, called MMP7, appears to affect metastasis.
In laboratory experiments, Hebrok and his colleagues showed that blocking these proteins in mice shrunk the number of lesions that can lead to cancer and reduced the extent of cancer metastasis. They also showed that one of these molecules, MMP7, may be a clinical indicator of cancer stage, possibly making it useful as a marker for more aggressive disease. The research could also help identify new ways to target pancreatic cancer with drugs.
"If you are able to down-regulate inflammatory signals at an early stage of the disease, you may be able to curb the formation of early lesions," said Hebrok, who directs the UCSF Diabetes Center and is the Hurlbut-Johnson Distinguished Professor in Diabetes Research.