Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in the USA think they have found the mechanism responsible for the process through which chronic inflammation of the pancreas and pancreatitis develops into pancreatic cancer.
Published online (August 5th 2013) in the Journal of Cell Biology, this study showed the way in which inflammation pushes acinar cells in the pancreas (the ones responsible for the production of digestive enzymes) to change into duct-like cells. While these cells are changing, they acquire mutations which can result in the progression towards pancreatic cancer.
The research involved the tracing of macrophages (a type of white blood cell that eats foreign material in the body) to see how they responded to inflammation in the pancreas. It had been thought that macrophages were a benign mechanism to remove damaged cells in the organ. However, the research team discovered that it is the macrophages themselves that drive the transformation and provide the environment for the development of pancreatic cancer.
The good news, according to Dr Peter Storz, senior author and molecular biologist at the Mayo Clinic, is that this process is reversible and that the team has identified a number of molecules involved in this pathway which could be used to help push the new duct-like cells back to acinar cells, thereby reducing the risk of cancer development. The next step is for the scientists to test whether drugs already on the market could be effective in reversing this cellular transformation in mice.
The researchers have also developed a method by which fluid from the inflamed pancreas can be collected by a routine endoscopy and tested for the signalling molecules that cause the acinar cells to transform. They hope that one day, this test could serve as an early marker test to detect potential risk of this cellular transformation in patients with chronic inflammation of the pancreas and pancreatitis and then use a treatment to reverse the possibility that pancreatic cancer will develop.
Source: Mayo Clinic Press Release 5th August 2013