AUG 18, 2016 6:20 AM PDT

Pancreatic Cancer: A Tale of Coercion and Thievery Emerges

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Faced with low nutrients and starvation, pancreatic cancer doesn’t back down. In fact, scientists have found that they can outsmart their environment and coerce nearby cells to feed them the essential fuels. The study highlights the complexity of pancreatic cancer biology and how we desperately need to stay ahead of this aggressive cancer type.
 

Image credit: Pixabay.com
 

Pancreatic cancer is notorious for its lethality. Only about 25 percent of patients survive past the one-year mark from diagnosis. A key contributor to the cancer’s aggressiveness is its ability to thrive in seemingly nutrient-poor environments. Where does the cancer get its fuel from when oxygen and blood sugar is scarce?
 
As it turns out, when the going gets rough, pancreatic cancer cells scavenge for nutrients by forcing other cells to feed it. In particular, the cancer cells exploit nearby stellate cells, which normally secrete metabolites in the pancreas for structural support. Pancreatic cancer cells can signal stellate cells to surge their metabolite production, leading to a 20 to 40 percent increase in the cancer cells’ metabolic output.
 
As if coercing stellates to make more essential metabolites weren’t enough, pancreatic cancer cells go a step further. They can cause the breakdown of cell parts in stellates – a process known as autophagy. Autophagy usually involves the breakdown of damaged organelles into basic building blocks (amino acids) that the cell can then recycle. In pancreatic cancer, the autophagy is selfishly spurred on because the cancer uses the amino acid parts for its fuel.

"Our study offers more proof that pancreatic cancers not only use fuel differently, but also scavenge for it far more effectively than many cancer types," said Alec Kimmelman, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology in the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone, and senior study author.
 
Pancreatic cancer is impressively cunning, and also very choosy, too. The amino acid that’s favored by the cancer is alanine. Kimmelman found that the cancer feeds the stolen amino acid into its mitochondria, where they are used in the Krebs cycle to generate energy. Using alanine also diverts more precious nutrients, like glucose, to other vital tasks, like making nucleotides.
 
"This work establishes the existence of a new kind of crosstalk between tumors and stellate cells," says Kimmelman. "Knowing this may help the field to design drugs that interfere with the astonishing metabolic flexibility that makes these cancers unique."
 


Additional source: NYU Langone press release

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
OCT 10, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
DNA Can Reveal Treatments for Lung Cancer in 'Never-Smoked' Patients
OCT 10, 2021
DNA Can Reveal Treatments for Lung Cancer in 'Never-Smoked' Patients
There is a well-known causal connection between smoking and lung cancer, and most research on lung cancer has been focus ...
OCT 14, 2021
Cancer
Mechanism of Resistance to Colorectal Cancer Treatment Uncovered
OCT 14, 2021
Mechanism of Resistance to Colorectal Cancer Treatment Uncovered
Colorectal cancer develops when a series of changes occur across multiple genes.  While researchers have paid signi ...
OCT 18, 2021
Cancer
The History of Immunotherapy: Toxins, Targets & T Cells
OCT 18, 2021
The History of Immunotherapy: Toxins, Targets & T Cells
Cancer immunotherapy, a treatment that directly enhances a patient’s immune system, is typically perceived as a mo ...
OCT 14, 2021
Clinical & Molecular DX
Weighing Cancer Cells Helps Predict Treatment Outcomes
OCT 14, 2021
Weighing Cancer Cells Helps Predict Treatment Outcomes
Not all cancer patients respond to oncology treatments in the same way. Some might show signs of improvement as the ther ...
NOV 11, 2021
Cancer
US Military Veterans: Cancer Risk and Cancer Research
NOV 11, 2021
US Military Veterans: Cancer Risk and Cancer Research
The US Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) estimates about 50,000 new cancer cases diagnosed each year. In total, ...
DEC 09, 2021
Cancer
Inflammation: Naughty or Nice List?
DEC 09, 2021
Inflammation: Naughty or Nice List?
Aulus Cornelius Celsus, a Roman physician, first identified the four major characteristics of inflammation in the first ...
Loading Comments...