Researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and Baylor College of Medicine have discovered a novel molecular mechanism that is involved with the spread of pancreatic malignant tumors. This may pave the way for diagnosis and treatment of one of the most deadly and difficult-to-treat types of cancer — pancreatic cancer. Hopefully, a drug can be developed to block this aberrant pathway.
In 2013, pancreatic cancer took 38,460 lives just in the United States alone. Generally, patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within one to two years. This is a fast-spreading form of cancer and currently there are no reliable tests for early detection as well as no effective therapies.
The study made use of the fact that their is a correlation between zinc and pancreatic cancer. As an essential trace element, zinc, is an important element involved with biological functions. It has been observed that elevated amounts of zinc are linked to pancreatic cancer.
According to Min Li, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and associate professor and director of the Cancer Research Program in the Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at the UTHealth Medical School, “We were the first to show that zinc transporter ZIP4 was a marker for pancreatic cancer. We knew there was a link but we didn’t know what it was.”
Li indicates that levels of zinc in cells are regulated by a zinc transporter called ZIP4. An animal model was designed to turn this transporter on so they could determine what was happening.
The researchers discovered that turning on ZIP4 activated two downstream genes that accelerate pancreatic tumor growth. This type of activation is referred to as a signaling cascade. Previously this group of researchers had elucidated a new biological role for the zinc transporter, however, the molecular pathway controlling this mechanism was unknown. The current study provides comprehensive information on the mechanism for the zinc transporter (ZIP4) and its involvement with pancreatic cancer growth.
They have discovered that activation of a transcription factor known as CREB and an oncogenic miR-373 along with a decrease in key tumor suppressor genes are responsible for pancreatic cancer growth.
Xiaobo Cui, M.D., Ph.D., study co-first author and postdoctoral research fellow at the UTHealth Medical School, notes that “The results we reported in this study may help the design of future therapeutic strategies targeting the zinc transporter and microRNA pathways to treat pancreatic cancer.”
Please see the video below for an overview of pancreatic cancer from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network: