Unlocking the Mysteries of Pancreatic Cancer

Learning that you have pancreatic cancer is terrible news. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, and, for reasons unknown, African-Americans have a 40 to 50 percent increased risk of contracting this cancer.

Surgery to remove the tumor remains the first line of defense, but the outlook for survival in patients is still bleak. Chemotherapeutic drugs have had minimal effect on improving patient survival.

"Only five percent of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are still living after five years of treatment,” said Dr. Courtney Houchen, a physician and researcher with the Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Houchen, fellow Cancer Center researcher Sripathi Sureban, PhD, and their team of researchers believe their newest discovery may help change that. They have uncovered an important key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding pancreatic cancer, its origin and its spread – a protein called DCLK1 that appears to be an important regulator of the cancer’s stem cell biology.

Their latest research shows the protein is involved in the metastasis or spread of cancer to other parts of the body. Previous research had found that DCLK1 also was involved in the genesis of cancer growth.

"We think this is breakthrough research because it identifies a potential target molecule that can regulate both the start of the cancer and the spread of the cancer,” said Houchen. "We're very excited about this research because it is new. It's a new molecular target; and it may open the door to developing new agents for this terrible disease."

Armed with their findings, Cancer Center researchers hope to develop chemical agents that can "knockdown" the protein. When identified, those agents could ultimately be used in patient clinical trials, but researchers emphasize that much more research must be done first.

Because DLCK1 is a "master regulator" of processes that govern cancer growth, researchers believe knocking it down also may have benefits for patients with colon, prostate, breast and other forms of cancer.

The OUHSC team's work has already captured the attention of other scientific teams, generating new research efforts across the country.

"We are the pioneers. Other researchers are now doing their own work, but they are following our research," Sureban said.

Inspired by the team’s research discoveries, Houchen has founded Coare Biotechnology, a company he hopes will develop drugs to successfully combat pancreatic cancer and provide hope to patients diagnosed with it.

The team’s research findings are published online in PLOS One. The research is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.