Pancreatic cancer is an especially serious and frightening form of cancer. It is often completely undetected until it has reached an advanced stage. It tends to reject many forms of treatment. Around 43,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. Less than one out of five cases are caught early enough to be surgically removed. Even if the cancer is removed, only about 5% of the patients live longer than five years after the surgery.
New studies in genetics have revealed to scientists a better understanding of what, exactly, goes in inside a pancreatic tumor. This brings to light how those tumors may have developed. The implication is that there may be a new way to fight this form of cancer in the near future.
At least some of the cause is due to mutations in an individual's genes. Somewhere between 5% and 7% of people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have mutations in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. Mutations on those genes also are linked to a higher risk of a person developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer. These mutated genes, like all genes, are something that can be passed down from ancestor to future descendants.
Based on this new understanding about how pancreatic cancer cells work, there are some potential new forms of treatment that may become available in the future. One idea involves destroying the stroma of these cells. The stroma is a protective tissue that surrounds cancer cells, keeps them alive, and helps them to grow. Without the stroma, which happens to be especially hardy in pancreatic cancer cells, the cancer cells are unprotected. The hope is that without the stroma, chemotherapy treatments will be more effective.
Another potential new treatment involves drugs called PARP inhibitors. BRCA proteins usually help to repair damaged DNA. When the BRCA cannot do it's job, another group of repair proteins called PARP can step in. Hopefully, inhibiting the PARP in the cancer cells will prevent it from being able to repair itself. This treatment could also make chemotherapy treatment more effective.