It is possible to reverse a key process that allows pancreatic cancer cells to grow and spread around the body, scientists have found.
Researchers suggest the findings could ultimately pave the way for new treatments of the disease.
The study shows that a protein called GREM1 is key to controlling the type of cells found in pancreatic cancer.
According to the researchers, manipulating the levels of this protein can both fuel and reverse the ability of these cells to become more aggressive.
Professor Axel Behrens, leader of the Cancer Stem Cell Team at The Institute of Cancer Research, London (ICR) was senior author of the study.
He said: “This is an important and fundamental discovery that opens up a new avenue for uncovering treatments for pancreatic cancer.
“We have shown that it is possible to reverse cell fate in pancreatic cancer in the lab – turning back the clock on aggressive tumours and switching them to a state that makes them easier to treat.
“By better understanding what drives the aggressive spread of pancreatic cancer, we hope to now exploit this knowledge and identify ways to make pancreatic cancer less aggressive, and more treatable.”
Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rates of common cancers.
Less than 7% of people will survive for five years or more.
In the UK, more than 10,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, and more than 9,000 will die from it.
The ICR researchers studied pancreatic cancer with the gene that makes the GREM1 protein switched off in mice, and in pancreatic ‘mini-tumours’, which are also known as organoids.
They found that switching off the GREM1 caused the tumour cells to rapidly change shape and develop new properties that help them invade new tissues and migrate around the body.
Within 10 days, all the tumour cells changed their identity into a dangerous, invasive cell type, researchers found.
But crucially, the scientists discovered that boosting GREM1 levels could reverse this process and cause invasive cell types to revert into a less dangerous form.
Researchers hope to use this knowledge to find ways to reverse more advanced pancreatic cancer into a less aggressive form, which is easier to treat.
However, the science is at an early stage, and significant further research is needed.
The findings are published in Nature.
Professor Kristian Helin, chief executive of the ICR, said: “Pancreatic cancer is one of the most devastating of all cancers – the most common form of the disease spreads aggressively, making it hard to treat and a terrifying diagnosis for patients and their loved ones.
“This new finding has broadened our understanding of the molecular basis of how pancreatic cancer gains the ability to grow and spread around the body.
“Although more work is required, this type of fundamental research is essential for developing concepts for new and more effective treatments for cancer.”