Israeli discovery could stop spread of pancreatic cancer cells in liver

Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, Ichilov Hospital. Credit: Alex Jilitsky via Wikimedia Commons.

by Maayan Hoffman

(JNS) — A team of researchers from Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center has discovered how pancreatic cancer cells spread in the liver, which could be key to developing treatments to slow it down and prolong patients’ lives.

The study, led by Dr. Tami Rubinek, head of the hospital’s oncology research lab, together with Ph.D. student Shani Journo and under the auspices of Professor Ido Wolf, found that a mutation that causes the disappearance of the “p15” and “p16” proteins — named for their molecular weight — appears more in liver metastasis and less in pancreatic cancer tumors in the pancreas or other areas of the body, such as the lungs or abdomen.

The liver is often the “killing organ,” Wolf told JNS, meaning patients often die when pancreatic cancer spreads to their liver.

In general, pancreatic cancer is one of the top 10 deadliest cancers, among a list prepared by Live Science that includes such cancers as gallbladder, esophageal, liver and lung cancers. Wolf said that once pancreatic cancer starts to spread, patients generally only live between six months and a year.

Between 800 and 900 cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed annually in Israel, according to the Israeli Ministry of Health website. In the United States, some 60,000 new cases are diagnosed. According to Wolf, the numbers are steadily rising.

He said that the next step would be to find treatments based on the findings of the study.

Wolf cautioned that it is unlikely that the information will lead to a cure for this particular cancer. However, he said it would likely lead to treatments that could prolong patients’ lives.

Until this study — the largest of its kind, which included 17,000 pancreatic cancer patients from around the world whose information was entered into a database of FoundationOne, one of the world’s largest cancer genomics companies — it was assumed that all pancreatic cancers were similar, with no subgroups.

“The study… reveals the Achilles heel of the cancer cell,” said Wolf.

Dr. Ayelet Erez of the Weizmann Institute of Science, an expert in the dynamics of cellular metabolism, who is unconnected to the Tel Aviv research, confirmed the novelty of the study and its potential implications.

“The novelty of the paper is in promoting the concept that the metabolic landscape of the distant organ affects metastasis tropism of primary cancers,” she told JNS. “The results of this work have translational implications as they expose metabolic vulnerabilities of the metastasizing cells that can be targeted for therapy.”