Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal cancers in humans. Symptoms rarely appear early so it is often only diagnosed at an advanced stage, meaning prognosis and survival rates are poor. This, combined with lifestyle factors, means it is set to overtake colorectal, breast and prostate cancer and become the second leading cause of worldwide cancer-related deaths by 2030.
The dismal prognosis of pancreatic cancer is linked to the presence of a cell population called cancer stem-like cells (CSCs). These have been shown to increase resistance to chemotherapy, so annihilating CSCs has emerged as an essential aim of pancreatic cancer treatment. But the underlying processes driving CSCs are insufficiently understood.
Led by Siim Pauklin, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Career Development Fellow at the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences (NDORMS), the team hypothesised that epigenic proteins are essential to maintain the resistive properties of cancer stem-like cells (CSCs). They started to look for targets and identified the protein BRD9 as a regulator of CSC behaviour making it an attractive therapeutic target for specifically eliminating CSCs in pancreatic cancer.