Scientists have revealed an interaction between pancreatic cancer cells and their environment, according to new research.
The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, suggest a possible explanation for why some tumours are more aggressive.
And the researchers believe the discovery could lead to a new way of predicting patient outlook.
“Communication between a tumour and its surrounding tissue is crucial in cancer growth and represents a potential Achilles’ heel that could be exploited” – Professor Andrew Biankin, Cancer Research UK
Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDA) is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths.
The disease is often diagnosed at a late stage, when it is much harder to treat. As a result, survival figures have remained low.
Pancreatic tumours are also surrounded by a dense mixture of cells, which is characteristic of the disease and can lead to tumours being more aggressive.
In the new study, researchers in France analysed the molecules in the area around tumours in mice and from patient samples. They then tested how healthy cells in this area, which have been corrupted by the tumour, contribute to the cancer’s aggressiveness.
The team found that corrupted healthy cells containing small sacs – called vesicles – filled with a molecule called annexin A6 caused the cancer cells to grow faster and spread in mice.
Whereas removing the annexin A6 molecule helped slow tumour growth.
The study also found that the amount of annexin A6 vesicles found in patients was also linked to survival data.
This suggests that measuring annexin A6 vesicles could be used as an indicator for how aggressive a tumour might be.
Professor Andrew Biankin, a Cancer Research UK expert on pancreatic cancer, said that studying the world around pancreatic tumours – the so-called tumour microenvironment – could open up new opportunities for treatment.
“Communication between a tumour and its surrounding tissue is crucial in cancer growth and represents a potential Achilles’ heel that could be exploited for therapy,” he said.
“A major example is immunotherapy. And by understanding the mechanisms that underpin immune evasion, we now have therapies that successfully target these, sometimes with dramatic effect.
“The tumour microenvironment is a key component of cancer and is rich with opportunities to develop successful therapies.”