The team, led by Dr Leandro Castellano at Imperial College London and University of Sussex, showed that using CRISPR/Cas9 to edit out molecules known as micro RNA (miRNAs) from pancreatic cancer managed to slow its growth in the lab, and in vivo in mice.
Targeting these miRNAs could provide new treatment options for pancreatic cancer in the future. In addition, the molecules could also be used to assess how aggressive a patient's cancer is, and its likelihood of spreading.
'These molecules act like the "rabble-rousers" in tumour cells – they drive a number of processes that cause cancer cells to become aggressive, and more likely to invade other areas of the body,' said Dr Silvia Ottaviani, joint first-author of the study published in Nature Communications.
The team found that two miRNAs called miR-100 and miR-125b, worked together with a hormone called transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) to promote the growth and spread of pancreatic cancer.
When they used genome editing to remove the genes coding for the miRNAs, the researchers found that pancreatic cancer cells in vitro reverted to less aggressive behaviour. TGF-beta of itself did not have the same impact. The team then studied the same process in mice, and found that removing the miRNAs slowed down the growth and spread of pancreatic cancer.
The researchers are planning further work on these two miRNAs. 'We now need to find out if stopping the production of these molecules will slow pancreatic cancer growth, or make the cancer cells easier to kill with chemotherapy,' said Dr Ottaviani.
'The potential positive impact which these results could have on patients' lives in years to come is significant. If future research is successful, Dr Castellano's results could lead to many pancreatic cancer patients living longer and having more precious time with their families,' said Leanne Reynolds, head of research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, which funded the work along with Action Against Cancer.