Researchers at University of Rochester have discovered a gene that plays a critical role in pancreatic cancer and blocking the gene's function can slow down the disease, a new study published in Cell Reports reveals.
Most recent improvements in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, in fact, are the result of using different combinations of older chemotherapy drugs. The research led by Hartmut "Hucky" Land, Ph.D., and Aram F. Hezel, M.D., of UR Medicine's James P. Wilmot Cancer Center, identifies a new target in the process of garbage recycling that occurs within the cancer cell called autophagy, which is critical to pancreatic cancer progression and growth. Autophagy is derived from the Greek roots "auto" (self) and "phagein" (to eat), and is an intracellular digestive process that allows cells to survive under stress.
During a cell's transformation from normal to malignant, autophagy speeds up to keep pace with rapid cellular changes and a tumor's quest to grow. The newly discovered PLAC-8 gene sustains the highly active recycling process, as it removes faulty proteins and organelles and degrades them into reusable building blocks during cancer progression. "What makes this an exciting opportunity is that the gene we're studying is critical to the cancer cell's machinery but it is not essential to the function of normal cells," said Land, chair of Biomedical Genetics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and director of research at Wilmot. "By targeting these types of non-mutated genes that are highly specific to cancer, we are looking for more effective ways to intervene." The Cell Reports study underlines Wilmot's overall unique approach to cancer research. Rather than investigate single faulty genes linked to single subtypes of cancer, Rochester scientists have identified a larger network of approximately 100 non-mutated genes that cooperate and control the shared activities of many cancers. While investigating this larger gene network, Land and Hezel focused on PLAC-8. Moreover, the team found that by inactivating PLAC-8 in mice and shutting down autophagy, they could significantly slow cancer's progression. The relevance of PLAC-8 may also extend to other tumors - lung, colon, and liver, for example -- that share key genetic changes such as KRAS and p53 mutations that are present in the majority of pancreatic cancers. The breadth of these findings is an area of ongoing study in the Land and Hezel labs.