Our response to “gremlin therapy” research that suggests pancreatic cancer can be reversed

Our Head of Research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, Dr Chris MacDonald has provided commentary on new research from the Institute of Cancer Research.

30 June 2022

New research from The Institute of Cancer Research has shown that a protein called GREM1, also known as Gremlin1, is pivotal to regulating the type of cells that are found in pancreatic cancer. Furthermore, scientists found that manipulating the levels of this protein can both fuel and reverse the cells’ ability to change into a more aggressive subtype.

Researchers believe that this discovery could lead to new, desperately needed pancreatic cancer treatments.

The study was conducted on mice that had the GREM1 protein switched off and in pancreatic ‘mini-tumours’. Those working on the project found that switching off the GREM1 protein caused the tumours cells to change shape quickly and develop new properties that assist them in invading tissues and making their way around the body. Switching off the gene also made the tumours more likely to spread in mice. In fact, roughly 90 per cent of the mice without functioning GREM1 developed tumours which then spread to the liver, compared to 15 per cent of mice where GREM1 was working as normal.

The scientists then boosted GREM1 levels and found that this could reverse the process and cause aggressive and invasive cells to revert into a less dangerous form. They hope that they can use this knowledge in the future to find new ways to reverse advanced pancreatic cancer, making it easier to treat.

"This research has shown the potential to confine the disease to the pancreas where it can be more easily targeted with surgery and focused therapies we currently have in our armoury."

Dr Chris MacDonald

Our Head of Research, Dr Chris MacDonald has reacted to the research:

“Although this research is still in the early stages, these exciting new findings represent a huge body of work from leading thinkers in this field which improves our understanding of the origins of pancreatic cancer.”

The ability to spread quickly throughout the body before it is detected makes this a truly devastating disease. Tragically, 80% of people currently receive a terminal diagnosis.

We have known for some time that there are different populations of cells that initiate pancreatic cancer: some that drive a very aggressive cancer, and others that produce a more stable form less likely to spread. This research has shown the potential to confine the disease to the pancreas where it can be more easily targeted with surgery and focused therapies we currently have in our armoury. This could give many more people the very best chance of survival and more precious time with their loved ones.”