Pancreatic cancer is nearly always a death sentence, killing 1 in 5 people within a year and 96 percent within five years of diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society. But scientists from the University of Manchester have discovered a way to make chemotherapy more effective for pancreatic cancer patients.
In new research, published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry, the scientists found pancreatic cancer cells have their own specialized energy supply that maintains calcium levels and keeps cancer cells alive. But by manipulating that "pump" the researchers were able to block the flow of calcium to the tumor cells, resulting in their destruction.
Lead researcher Jason Bruce, M.D., said the findings could offer a new way to target the aggressive form of cancer and boost the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatments.
"Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive and deadly cancers. Most patients develop symptoms after the tumor has spread to other organs," he said. "To make things worse, pancreatic cancer is highly resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Clearly a radical new approach to treatment is urgently required. We wanted to understand how the switch in energy supply in cancer cells might help them survive."
Bruce explained that all cells generate energy from nutrients using two major biochemical energy "factories" — mitochondria and glycolysis. For the new study, the scientists used cells taken from human tumors and examined at the effects of blocking each of these two energy sources. The results showed blocking mitochondrial metabolism had no effect on the tumors, but when they blocked glycolysis, it resulted in a toxic calcium overload that ultimately destroyed the tumor cells.
"It looks like glycolysis is the key process in [fueling] pancreatic cancer cells," Dr Bruce said. "Designing drugs to cut off this supply to the calcium pumps might be an effective strategy for selectively killing cancer cells while sparing normal cells within the pancreas."
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