May 15, 2012— -- Scientists at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine have identified a new biomarker for pancreatic cancer. The finding helps researchers move one step forward in creating therapeutic treatments for the potentially deadly disease.
Pancreatic cancer can grow without symptoms, so the tumor has often advanced in its stage of growth by the time it is found. It is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute, and newly diagnosed patients have a median survival rate of less than a year, according to the study published today in the journal Cancer Research.
'"We found that a kinase [enzyme] called PEAK1 is turned on very early in pancreatic cancer," Jonathan Kelber, an author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in UCSD's department of pathology, said in a statement. "This protein was clearly detected in biopsies of malignant tumors from human patients - at the gene and the protein levels - as well as in mouse models."
A kinase is an enzyme that helps to regulate cell function, and a biomarker is a general term for a substance in the body that is used to indicate some sort of biological state. Researchers said the specific biomarker they identified acts as an "on" and "off" switch for cellular function. It is needed for the cancer to grow and spread.
"This study is just one more piece in the puzzle; however, it is probably just a small piece, but still contributes to our understanding as to what drives pancreatic cancer," said Dr. Aaron Sasson, director of the Gastrointestinal Oncology Center of Excellence at University of Nebraska Medical Center. "The importance in understanding how pancreatic cancer develops is critical if we are ever going to develop effective treatments for this deadly disease."
Dr. Richard Alexander, associate chair of clinical research in the department of surgery at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, praised the research, calling it "a beautifully conducted series of experiments that convincingly show that a protein found in pancreatic cancer cells, PEAK1, has an important role in the progression and spread of pancreatic cancers.
"The authors are to be complimented for the rigor of their scientific work."
Nevertheless, the data are preliminary and were observed under tightly controlled experimental conditions, so the extent to which the biomarkers will be relevant to patients has yet to be determined, Alexander noted.
Biomarkers can have many functions, such as screening high risk patients, aid in diagnosis, offer information as to how aggressive the disease is and help establish a point of attack in development new treatments, Sasson noted.
"This study speaks to the latter point," he said, "although it may take five to 10 years before any clinical benefit is seen, if ever."