CANCER RESEARCH UK scientists have discovered that a family of proteins found in pancreatic cancer cells may contribute to the aggressive nature of the disease, according to a study published in GUT* today.

Researchers, also supported by the North West Cancer Research Fund and the Medical Research Council, were able to track the proteins, called CapG and Gelsolin, in tissue samples from normal and cancerous cells. They found abnormally high concentrations of both proteins in the tumour tissue.

CapG and Gelsolin have roles in regulating cell movement. This study suggests that the proteins’ involvement in moving cells around the body contributes to pancreatic cancer spreading through the pancreas and to other areas of the body.

Dr Eithne Costello and colleagues, based at the Division of Surgery and Oncology at the, University of Liverpool, carried out experiments reducing the amounts of CapG and Gelsolin in pancreatic cancer cells in the laboratory, and found the spread of cancerous cells could be reduced. In addition, they found that pancreatic cancer patients have better prospects when the level of Gelsolin protein is low or undetectable.

They also made the unexpected discovery that the amount of CapG found in the nucleus of the cancerous cells was proportional to the size of the tumour. This could mean that this protein is closely linked to aggressive tumour growth as well as spread.

Dr Costello says: “This research looks at the importance of the proteins CapG and gelsolin in relation to pancreatic cancer, and the results are encouraging. These proteins may play a fundamental role in the aggressive spread and growth of pancreatic tumours.

“We now have a good idea about CapG’s and Gelsolin’s involvement in tumour spread, but we need to find out their precise contributions to provide us with important leads for new approaches to treatment.”

Around 7,000 people are diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas each year in the UK making it the eleventh most common cancer in the country. It most often affects people in middle and old age. Roughly two thirds of cases diagnosed are in those aged over 70. The incidence in men and women is about the same. Although surgery and chemotherapy offers a survival advantage, only around nine per cent of patients undergo potentially curative surgery.

John Lewys-Lloyd, Chairman of the North West Cancer Research Fund, said: “I am delighted that North West Cancer Research Fund and Cancer Research UK have been able to work together to fund what has proved to be a valuable piece of research by Dr Costello and her team. We are very much in support of this joint approach in trying to combat cancer.”

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Cancer Information for Cancer Research UK says: “Pancreatic cancer is often detected at an advanced stage, and there is an urgent need for effective treatment. More research is needed on the basic science, and this work should provide some important leads for new approaches.”


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*Pancreatic cancer cells overexpress Gelsolin family capping proteins, which contribute to their cell motility. Christopher Thompson et al. (2006) GUT online. See

This work was supported by Cancer Research UK, the North West Cancer Research Fund, the Medical Research Council and a grant from the National Institute of Health Burn Centre.

The pancreas makes digestive juices, insulin and other hormones to do with digestion.

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer does not usually cause symptoms in its early stages. When symptoms do occur, they may be vague. Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect early because the pancreas is located deep inside the body. In many cases, it may have spread outside the pancreas by the time a doctor diagnoses it.

Symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain can occur when the cancer presses against nerves in the abdominal area. Of course, there can be many reasons other than cancer for abdominal and/or back pain.
  • Weight loss that has continued over a period of months is common symptom of pancreatic cancer. This may be accompanied by nausea, loss of appetite and weakness.
  • Digestive problems may occur if the cancer blocks the release of pancreatic juices into the bowel. This can cause problems with the break down of fatty foods, which can result in stools (bowel motions) which are pale, bulky and greasy.
  • Jaundice is a yellow discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes. There are many reasons for jaundice other than cancer, for example hepatitis, or obstruction of the common bile duct due to gallstones.

People who notice any of the above changes should consult their doctor. However, these symptoms can often be due to reasons other than pancreatic cancer.

Information on pancreatic cancer is available on Cancer Research UK’s patient information website, Cancer Help UK.

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