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Pancreatic cancer has four distinct types

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by Cancer Research UK | News

25 February 2015

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Researchers have found that pancreatic cancer can be split into four unique types, a discovery that could be used to improve treatments for the disease, according to a study published in Nature.

The international team of scientists, including Cancer Research UK researchers, found that these four types were created when large chunks of DNA are shuffled around. The team also identified the genes that could be damaged in this way.

These four disease types* are based on the extent of the cancer’s genetic shuffling, with the tumours classified depending on the frequency, location and types of DNA rearrangements.

‘Despite many decades of research into pancreatic cancer we have faced numerous obstacles in finding new and effective treatments.’ – Professor Andrew Biankin

This shuffling of chunks of DNA causes genetic chaos with genes deleted, wrongly switched on and off or entirely new versions being created.

Among the genetic faults found are some that could potentially be targeted with existing drugs.

Study co-lead, Professor Andrew Biankin, a Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Glasgow, said: “Despite many decades of research into pancreatic cancer we have faced numerous obstacles in finding new and effective treatments. But our crucial study sheds light on how the chaotic chromosomal rearrangements cause a huge range of genetic faults that are behind the disease and provide opportunities for more personalised pancreatic cancer treatment.”

The study also suggests which pancreatic cancer patients may benefit from platinum-based drugs – these are commonly used chemotherapy treatments, typically used for testicular or ovarian cancer. So far these drugs have had limited impact in pancreatic cancer but the researchers found that a handful of patients who had ‘unstable’ chromosome rearrangements and defects in the DNA repair pathways could potentially benefit, sometimes showing exceptional improvement.

Professor Biankin added: “Being able to identify which patients would benefit from platinum-based treatments would be a game-changing moment for treating pancreatic cancer, potentially improving survival for a group of patients.”

Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: “Pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat, and we have to find better ways to tackle it if we are to see more than just five per cent of people surviving, as is now the case.

“By understanding the different types that might exist, and how we may be able to treat them with drugs that are already available in some cases, we can open a new window onto the disease which will hopefully lead to new and better treatments.”


For media enquiries contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.

Waddell, N. et al, ‘Whole Genomes Redefine the Mutational Landscape of Pancreatic Cancer’. Nature, 2015.