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Genes for pancreatic cancer identified in international genome study

29 October 2012

By Rivka Marks-Maran

Appeared in BioNews 679

Thousands of genetic mutations associated with pancreatic cancer have been identified in an international study. Scientists analysed the genomes of 100 pancreatic tumours and found the prevalence of certain genetic mutations differed across the tumours.

'This demonstrates that so-called "pancreatic cancer" is not one disease, but many, and suggests that people who seemingly have the same cancer might need to be treated quite differently', said Professor Sean Grimmond of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, Australia, who co-led the study.

Pancreatic cancer is a particularly aggressive form of cancer, which following diagnosis leaves physicians with a very limited amount of time to treat it. Commenting on the use of different forms of chemotherapy in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, Professor Andrew Biankin of the Garvin Institute, Sydney who co-led the study with Professor Grimmond, told ABC News: 'If you get it wrong the first time then basically most patients don't live long enough to get the next chance of chemotherapy'.

In an effort to better understand the biology of this aggressive cancer, scientists compared the genomes of 100 pancreatic tumours to that of healthy tissue and identified mutations in genes involved in a variety of cellular processes. Sixteen of these genes were found to be particularly important, half of which were not previously known to be associated with pancreatic cancer. Further analysis showed these genes were involved in the development of nerve cells, specifically in a process called axon guidance.

'In this study, we found a set of genes, the axon guidance pathway, that is frequently damaged in pancreatic cancer patients and is associated with a potentially poorer outcome for those patients. It is a new marker of pancreatic cancer that can be used to direct prognoses and treatments', said Professor Biankin.

This finding has offered suggestions on how pancreatic cancer might spread. Dr Thorsten Hagemann, a Cancer Research UK expert commented: 'Pancreatic cancer often spreads alongside the surrounding nerves, so it could be very significant that this team has found faults in genes involved in nerve cell growth in pancreatic tumours'.

Understanding what genetic changes lead to pancreatic cancer may improve future treatments. It is hoped this research could support the use of individual cancer genomes to direct the best course of treatment for patients. 'The idea is that you don't want to give drugs to patients that aren't going to respond because it's probably toxic and it's expensive', said Professor Biankin to ABC News. '[Instead] you try and match the right drug to the right patient'.

This study was published in the journal Nature.

Cancer Research UK | 24 October 2012
ABC News | 25 October 2012
Nature | 24 October 2012
Garvan Institute (press release) | 25 October 2012


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