Pancare facilitates research that could hold the key to improving survival in pancreatic cancer patients

Significant funding provided by the Pancare Foundation has led to finding an important piece of the puzzle that is pancreatic cancer.

Research led by scientists at The University of Melbourne, published in the International Journal of Cancer, could eventually improve treatments with the identification of a protein that appears to help tumour cells become more aggressive.

Scientists, led by Associate Professor Mehrdad Nikfarjam, have identified a protein called p21-activated kinase 1 (PAK1), in the tumor environment of pancreatic cancer. It was previously found that PAK1 was in pancreatic tumor cells and targeting this protein, in combination with current chemotherapies, resulted in decreased tumor growth and spread in a model of pancreatic cancer in mice.

Now, the team has determined that PAK1 is also involved in the tumor environment of pancreatic cancer and specifically in a cell type called the stellate cells. Stellate cells are responsible for the fibrosis (scarring) observed surrounding the pancreatic tumour cells, that reduces the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

The current study investigated the role of PAK1 in these stellate cells and how they communicate with the tumor cells. PAK1 was found to be involved in the fibrotic production, proliferation and death of these cells and could assist tumor cells to a become more aggressive. Targeting PAK1 in the tumor environment in mice resulted in decreased fibrosis (scar tissue formation), reduced tumour growth, increased tumour sensitivity to chemotherapy and increased survival of mice with pancreatic cancer. Although further testing is needed, an inhibitor could potentially increase survival of patients with pancreatic cancer.

“Communication between stellate cells and tumor cells is important, leading to the aggressiveness of pancreatic tumors” Lead author Dannel Yeo said. “Targeting PAK1 could reduce the fibrosis surrounding pancreatic tumors and allow conventional chemotherapies to have greater effects on the tumours”.