Monday, June 11, 2012

Understanding How Pancreatic Cancer Spreads

Christine Wilson, cancer survivor, shares her experiences from the Abramson Cancer Center’s Focus On Pancreatic Cancer Conference. In this blog, she recaps the conference. You can view the conference in its entirety, including presentations here.

The ability of cancer cells to invade neighboring tissue and spread to distant organs, called metastasis, is what makes pancreatic cancer such a dangerous and potentially deadly disease. How does metastasis occur? When do cancer cells start to spread?

Metastasis is a very complex, multistep process that requires a gradual accumulation of changes in the cells, or mutations. At the cellular level, metastasis is actually very rare. Only a very few cells in a tumor ever develop the ability to spread, which makes it difficult to study.

At the Focus On Pancreatic Cancer conference, Ben Stanger, MD, PhD, likened the challenge to that of "finding Waldo." Stanger's research aims to understand which cells metastasize and how and when they do.

Early results of his research indicate in pancreatic cancer, the process may begin much earlier than previously thought. Even some pre-malignant cells appear to begin moving away from their site of origin and taking on the characteristics of the cells that surround them, which are critical steps in metastasis. Dr. Stanger’s work provides important clues as to why pancreatic cancer is so difficult to treat effectively, and it could potentially lead to the development of new therapies.

Using the Immune System to Fight Pancreatic Cancer

Greg Beatty, MD, PhD, is taking another approach to understanding how pancreatic cancers interact with normal cells in the body. His research centers on the ways in which pancreatic cancer "teaches our immune systems to help them grow and spread, cloaking themselves to avoid detection."

The body’s immune system has the ability to identify cancer cells as enemies and destroy them. But in many cases this doesn't occur and the cancer cells actually are able to interact with surrounding tissue and the immune system to help promote their growth.

Dr. Beatty calls this "bad education," and is working on approaches to send the immune system "back to school," re-educating it to attack and destroy cancer cells. Pre-clinical research has yielded positive results, and a clinical trial that utilizes an antibody known as CD40 to treat metastatic pancreatic cancer is under way at Penn.

View the Focus on Pancreatic Cancer Conference to learn more about pancreatic cancer research being done at the Abramson Cancer Center

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