- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

Pancreatic cancer is often referred to as a “silent disease.” But its sufferers might have reason to shout for joy one day, thanks to a relatively new treatment developed by a group of researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The symptoms of pancreatic cancer rarely show up in its first stages. Yet it can only be cured if it is caught early. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), pancreatic cancer afflicts more than 29,000 individuals annually, making it the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths.

The pancreas is a small gland located just behind the stomach. The pancreatic juices it secretes are important in food digestion. In addition, the pancreas secretes insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar. Its important role and small size makes treating pancreatic cancer a difficult problem. The NCI bulletin on it noted, “Cancer of the pancreas is very hard to control with current treatments.”

That might change in the future. In a brief communication published yesterday in the online journal Nature Medicine, the team, led by Dr. Richard Kolesnick, described how it was able to significantly shrink pancreatic cancers in mice without apparent toxic side-effects by using nucleic acids. Cells use nucleic acids — DNA and RNA — to store the instructions (known as genes) for the proteins that they need to function, and then to build them as need arises. Over the last few years, researchers have realized that they can turn genes on and off by building complementary strands to both DNA and RNA and inserting them into cells. However, those techniques have not been easy to translate into disease therapies.

Mr. Kolesnick’s group realized its results by using short strands of nucleotides to turn off a particular regulator for a gene named ras. Ras genes are critical for regulating cell growth and cycling — among other things, they tell cells when to reproduce and when to stop reproducing. Unregulated cell growth is one of the hallmarks of cancer, and where ras genes are defective, cancers usually develop. According to Mr. Kolesnick, a single mutation in one ras gene is found in about 90 percent of pancreatic cancer cases.

In two groups of mice born without immune systems, the therapy both prevented pancreatic cancer from developing and caused the regression of the pancreatic tumors that were already there. Most of the mice in both groups responded to the therapy and no toxic side-effects were seen.

It remains to be seen how effective this therapy will be in humans. A phase one clinical trial of the new treatment is being planned at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. For the sake of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, we hope that it continues to show promise.

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