Pancreatic cancer researchers use CRISPR to slow disease spread

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A team of researchers funded by Pancreatic Cancer UK have found a way to slow down the growth and spread of this tough cancer, and they could soon improve the chances of chemotherapy treatment being effective.

The team at Imperial College London, led by Dr Leandro Castellano, looked at a set of molecules called microRNAs, which are found in abundance in pancreatic cancer stem cells. These molecules work with a chemical hormone called tgf beta, which controls cancer cell behaviour, and together they encourage pancreatic cancer cells to grow and spread. Dr Castellano set out to investigate whether removing the microRNAs in pancreatic cancer would mean that this process could be slowed down.

Using the cutting-edge CRISPR gene editing technique, Dr Castellano and his team created pancreatic cancer cell lines in the lab without microRNAs and were then able to stop the process between microRNAs and tgf beta from happening, and therefore slowed down the growth and spread of the disease. The team then took their findings a step further within the same study. They investigated the same process in mice with pancreatic cancer, and once again found that removing the microRNAs meant that the growth and spread of the disease was slowed down.

Dr Castellano and team now plan to investigate whether removing the microRNAs will prevent a key process which normally takes place to develop the stroma. The stroma is the ‘armour’ which surrounds a pancreatic cancer tumour and makes it very difficult for treatments such as chemotherapy to reach the tumour, which is why finding new ways of weakening the stroma is a key challenge for pancreatic cancer researchers. If in the future this ‘armour’ could be weakened in people with the disease, it could mean that chemotherapy could reach tumours more effectively.

The hope is that Dr Castellano’s research could in the future lead to a new treatment which could not only slow down the growth and spread of this tough disease, but also weaken the ‘armour’ of the stroma and improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

Dr Castellano said: “treatment for pancreatic cancer is often not very effective, because the stroma makes it difficult for treatment to reach the tumour. It is therefore vital that new ways are discovered to slow down the growth and spread of this disease and  improve the effectiveness of treatment. We hope that if our further research is successful we can go to clinical trials in the next few years.”