Researchers from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid have determined that embryonic stem cells are involved in the development of pancreatic cancer. This discovery could open the door for new targeted therapies against the disease that has a low survival rate.
"Ask your oncologist if a combined therapy is a treatment option."
This pathway is called the Nodal/Activin pathway and plays a role in the development of embryonic stem cells. It's normally not active in adult tissue.
Researchers discovered that when the pathway signal was blocked, pancreatic cancer stem cells that had been resistant to therapy started to respond to chemotherapy.
The researchers tested the method in mice that had been injected with human pancreatic cancer cells. When the pathway was blocked and chemotherapy was given, the cancer cells died.
All the treated mice survived 100 days, compared to untreated mice that developed large tumors and died within 40 days.
Lead investigator, Christopher Heeschen of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid, said this "dual combination therapy worked strikingly well" - but only against cells, not actual cancerous tissue that was implanted in the mice.
So scientists added a third inhibitor to the therapy which succeeded in providing progression-free survival. This approach didn't lead to the tumor shrinking, rather to what researchers called “dead tissue” which has no way of developing new tumors.
For scientists, this “three-pronged” assault on pancreatic cancer highlights that treating cancer as a whole is more important than just trying to target cancer stem cells. Regression of a tumor is not the only sign of successful treatment.
The authors conclude that treatments targeting cancer stem cells need to be combined with other treatments and future research is needed to determine what combinations can be effective in battling both pancreatic and other forms of cancer.
This study was published in the November edition of Cell Stem Cell.