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Pancreatic cancer found to be four separate diseases

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by In collaboration with PA Media Group | News

25 February 2016

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Pancreatic cancer cell

Scientists have discovered pancreatic cancer can be divided into four separate types, paving the way for more accurate diagnosis and treatment.

“We urgently need more research like this if we’re going to beat this disease in the future” – Dr Emma Smith, Cancer Research UK

Researchers said the findings were a “launch pad” to look for new treatments, and could help doctors better understand which treatments are likely to work for each type of the disease.

Dr Emma Smith, from Cancer Research UK – that part-funded the study – said the findings were an “important step towards finding more effective treatments”.

“This will help to ensure patients are given the therapies that are most likely to help,” she added.

Over 9,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the UK each year, with less than five in 100 people surviving for at least five years after their diagnosis.

The study, carried out by a team led by researchers at the University of Glasgow and published in the journal Nature, looked at 456 pancreatic tumours from the Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative.

Researchers analysed the genetic details of the tumour samples, as well as how genes were being controlled and how this compared with how the cancer cells looked down a microscope. 

They were then able to reclassify the disease as one of four distinct sub-types:

  • squamous – these tumours carried genes that were also switched on in breast, bladder, lung and head and neck cancers
  • pancreatic progenitor – genes linked with the early development of the pancreas were switched on in these tumours
  • immunogenic – these tumours were similar to the pancreatic progenitor, but also contained immune cells
  • ADEX (Aberrantly Differentiated Endocrine eXocrine) – these tumours were defined by genes linked with later stages of how the pancreas develops 

Professor Andrew Biankin, from the University of Glasgow and who co-led the study, said the new way of classifying the disease could lead to more personalised treatments. 

For example, the discovery of the ‘immunogenic’ type suggests that these tumours may be vulnerable to the latest immunotherapies. And Professor Biankin added that testing this approach in clinical trials was “encouraged”.

Cancer Research UK’s Dr Smith added: “Improving survival for people with pancreatic cancer is one of our top priorities, and we urgently need more research like this if we’re going to beat this disease in the future.”

  • Bailey, P., et al. (2016). Genomic analyses identify molecular subtypes of pancreatic cancer Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature16965