New research published in the journal Nature Communications highlights the inner workings of how pancreatic cancer cells spread. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive cancers and it often metastasizes before initial detection; the average 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is around just 8%.. Understanding why some pancreatic cancers metastasize is crucial for catching the cancers while treatment options are still possible.
The research was headed by Paul Timpson from the Invasion and Metastasis Laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia and Thomas Cox, who is the leader of the Matrix and Metastasis Group at the same institute.
Together, the researchers analyzed the matrix tissues from tumors in pancreatic cancers in mice that had metastasized, comparing them with the matrix tissue from tumors that had not metastasized. They focused particularly on how a certain kind of fibroblast, which generates the collagen in the matrix, interacted with pancreatic cancer cells. Using mass spectrometry, they found something surprising:
"What we discovered is a previously unknown set of matrix molecules that aggressive pancreatic cancer cells use to shape the tissue around them, in order to both protect them from chemotherapy and enable easier escape around the body," says Cox. Particularly, the study explains, the presence of perlecan, a protein that “binds several growth factors, as well as matrix components including collagen, together,” according to Medical News Today.
The perlecan acts as a further bad influence, explains first study author Claire Vennin. "Our results suggest that some pancreatic cancer cells can 'educate' the fibroblasts in and around the tumor. This lets the fibroblasts remodel the matrix and interact with other, less aggressive cancer cells in a way that supports the cancer cells' ability to spread," she explains. "This means that in a growing tumor, even a small number of aggressive metastatic cells — a few bad apples — can help increase the spread of other, less aggressive cancer cells."
This discovery gives scientists new insight on potential treatments for pancreatic cancer that would target perlecan. "Most cancer therapies today aim to target cancer cells themselves. The environment of tumors is a potentially untapped resource for cancer therapy and one which we intend to explore further," comments Timpson.