Irish and US researchers have uncovered new clues about how the main form of pancreatic cancer develops.
Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, but it is one of the most fatal forms of cancer worldwide. Around 565 people are diagnosed with it every year in Ireland, however many of these cases are diagnosed too late for treatment to be effective.
This is because symptoms can be vague and may only show up when the disease has already spread to nearby organs.
A recent study by researchers at Dublin City University (DCU) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the US has identified new clues about the biology of the predominant type of pancreatic cancer - pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC).
Genetic studies have already identified particular variations in a person's DNA sequence that are linked with a higher risk of developing PDAC. However, little is known about how these variations impact on the development of the disease.
The Irish and US researchers have identified new clues about the pathways of the disease and these early stage findings provide an important insight for further exploration.
"If we know more about the biological pathways and gene networks that are enriched for pancreatic cancer risk variants involved in the development of this disease, we could look for new ways to identify people who are perhaps at higher risk, and possibly even new types of treatment strategies into the future," commented DCU researcher, Dr Naomi Walsh.
The study explored and identified genes that previously appeared to be on the fringes of involvement in PDAC, but when taken as part of a bigger biological picture, it appears these groups of genes may have an important role in the disease.
The research included existing genetic information from several large studies involving over 9,000 people who developed PDAC and almost 12,500 controls without the disease.
"It may be that single DNA variants already identified may only represent the tip of the iceberg in relation to genes associated with PDAC risk. Therefore, rather than looking at single DNA variant changes, we looked at the combined contribution of many PDAC-linked variants acting within a biological pathway.
"Cancer development tends to involve networks of genes that link together, and our study was able to look at the biological context of genes in PDAC and identify some important genes and pathways," Dr Walsh explained.
She said that now that these pathways have been identified, 'we can start examining their roles more closely in the pancreas and in the development of cancer'.
"This basic biological research can point us to new ways to understand and tackle this deadly disease," she added.
Details of these findings are published in the Journal of the National Cancer institute.
*Pictured is Dr Naomi Walsh of the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology at DCU