Scientists in the UK have identified existing drugs that could treat aggressive pancreatic tumours.
During a study on mice, researchers from the Cambridge Research Institute at Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute found that the USP9X gene, which normally stops a cell from dividing uncontrollably, is switched off in some pancreatic cancer cells, causing them to spread.
The team expects this gene could be faulty in up to 15% of pancreatic cancers, raising the prospect that existing drugs, which could turn the gene back on, could be an effective way of treating some pancreatic cancers.
Co-lead author Professor David Tuveson, from Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Research Institute said, "The genetics of pancreatic cancer has already been studied in some detail, so we were surprised to find that this gene hadn't been picked up before. We suspected that the fault wasn't in the genetic code at all, but in the chemical tags on the surface of the DNA that switch genes on and off, and by running more lab tests we were able to confirm this."
"Drugs which strip away these tags are already showing promise in lung cancer and this study suggests they could also be effective in treating up to 15% of pancreatic cancers," continued Professor Tuveson.
As part of the study, published in the journal Nature, researchers screened mice for genes that speed up pancreatic cancer growth using a technique called 'Sleeping Beauty transposon mutagenesis'.
This system uses mobile genetic elements that hop around the cell's DNA from one location to the next.
The researchers were then able to screen for a class of genes called a tumour suppressor that, under normal circumstances, would protect the body against cancer.
Image: Transposon-mediated insertional mutagenesis accelerates the progression of ductal pancreatic cancer in mice. Credit: Cancer Research UK