Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Key to why cancer kills so often

Pancreatic cancer cell (Science Photo Library/Steve Gschmeissner)
Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to spot

Scientists have pinpointed a possible reason why pancreatic cancer is such an aggressive disease.

A University of Liverpool team found a family of proteins involved in controlling cell movement could be key.

The study, which appears in the journal Gut, could offer a new lead on a disease which is hard to treat.

There are around 7,000 cases of pancreatic cancer in the UK each year. It can be hard to spot as the pancreas is located deep inside the body.

Abdominal pain
Weight loss over a period of months
Loss of appetite
Pale, bulky and greasy stools

As a result, although surgery can potentially cure the disease, only 9% of patients go under the knife.

The Liverpool team 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.

As both CapG and Gelsolin are known to have roles in regulating cell movement, the study suggests they may facilitate the spread of pancreatic cancer cells to other areas of the body

Spread curbed

The researchers reduced the amounts of CapG and Gelsolin in pancreatic cancer cells in the laboratory - and found this limited the cells' ability to spread.

They also found pancreatic cancer patients had better prospects when the level of Gelsolin protein was low or undetectable.

The research also showed 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.

Lead researcher Dr Eithne Costello said: "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."

Dr Lesley Walker, of the charity Cancer Research UK, said: "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."

The study was funded by Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council, and the North West Cancer Research Fund.

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