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Identification of four pancreatic cancer subtypes offers treatment insight

Posted by: Research 24 February 2016

Researchers have reclassified pancreatic cancer as four distinct types, a discovery that could offer new opportunities to treat the disease, according to their study published in Nature

The study was led by Professor Andrew Biankin, who sits on Pancreatic Cancer UK’s Scientific Advisory Board, along with a team of researchers at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Cancer Sciences. The team examined pancreatic cancer tumours, looking at key aspects such as mutational profile and changes in DNA. They found that pancreatic cancer can be classified as one of four different sub-types that have been named Squamous, Pancreatic Progenitor, Immunogenic and ADEX (Aberrantly Differentiated Endocrine eXocrine).  

Professor Biankin, the Regius Chair of Surgery/Director of the Wolfson Wohl Cancer Research Centre, said: “There is an urgent need to better understand the molecular pathology of pancreatic cancer in order to improve patient selection for current treatment options, and to develop novel therapeutic strategies. 

“The four subtypes that we have identified represent a reclassification of the disease and as such should provide a basis to offer new insights into personalised therapeutic options for individual patients and a launch pad to investigate new treatments.”  

The current methods of treating pancreatic cancer are not targeted and doctors currently have little insight into which treatment will be most effective for an individual patient. Researchers hope that the new reclassification will help to identify the correct targeted treatment for each individual subtype of the disease. One of the key findings of the research was the identification of the Immunogenic sub-type, which the study found could potentially prove to be responsive to types of immunotherapeutic cancer treatments, which have shown promise in other diseases such as blood cancers.  

Dr Peter Bailey, the first author of the study, said: “The standard of care for pancreatic cancer really hasn’t changed in the last 20 years. There are a number of different chemotherapeutic options but in general it’s not very selective – it’s like hitting the disease with a mallet with your eyes closed. 

“The work that we are doing is about trying to change the clinical landscape for, not only pancreatic cancer, but all cancers by providing a very thorough analysis of the molecular pathology of specific cancers, leading to a more personalised or precise approach to treatment based on the underlying genetic defects that drive a cancer that may be vulnerable to specific drugs” 

Pancreatic Cancer UK is supporting Professor Andrew Biankin's research into the area of personalised medicine through its Future Leaders Fund. Leanne Reynolds, the charity’s Head of Research, said: “The findings of this research are incredibly exciting for anyone affected by pancreatic cancer, as they should mean that in the future the right patients can be given the right treatment at the right time. This is crucial for people with pancreatic cancer, because the disease is difficult to diagnose, is often diagnosed terribly late, and just four per cent of people live for five years or more after diagnosis. If we can predict more accurately which treatment would be most effective for each patient, we can ensure patients have the best chance of living for as long as possible, as well as possible. We are proud to support Andrew Biankin and his team as they aim to transform the future for people with this disease.”