University of Michigan researchers have identified a gene called ATDC that is overexpressed in 90 percent of pancreatic cancers.
The expression of the gene called, Ataxia Telangiectasia Group D Complementing gene (ATDC), is 20 times higher in pancreatic cancer cells than in cells from a normal pancreas.
This gene also makes cancer resistant to chemotherapy. It is most highly expressed at the point when pre-cancerous cells become malignant.
ATDC was also linked to increased levels of a signalling protein called beta-catenin, which is known to play a key role in cancer development.
"One of the challenges in pancreatic cancer is that it is biologically aggressive and it does not respond well to chemotherapy or radiation," said senior study author Dr Diane Simeone, director of the Multidisciplinary Pancreatic Cancer Clinic at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Centre.
"We found that ATDC not only causes the cancer cells to grow faster and be more aggressive, but it also makes the cancer cells particularly resistant to chemotherapy and radiation.
"By targeting this gene, we may be able to make cancer cells more sensitive to the therapies we already have in hand," she added.
During the study, researchers injected into mice tumour cells expressing ATDC and compared that to a separate group of mice injected with tumour cells in which ATDC was suppressed.
They found that in the ATDC-expressing group, tumours grew in all the samples and were significantly larger and starting to metastasize, or spread.
In the group in which ATDC was not expressed, only minimal signs of tumor growth were seen after 60 days.
"This particular gene promotes the biologic aggressiveness of the cancer," Simeone added.
The study appears in Cancer Cell.