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Developing vital early treatments for pancreatic cancer

4 March 2024

Pancreatic cancer currently has a 10-year survival rate of just 5%. As the disease can be difficult to detect until its late stages, intervention often comes too late for many patients. Josh D’Ambrogio (Biosciences 2021-) has been studying pancreatic cancer in its early development to open up further avenues for early detection and more effective treatment strategies. 

My research investigates how obesity affects the ability of the adult pancreas to protect itself from mutant cells that could become cancerous. Previous research from Catherine Hogan’s lab, where I’m based, found that a healthy pancreas has this really cool tumour preventative process where it removes mutant cells from its epithelial (protective) layer. But they also found that this process can sometimes fail, leading to the development of pancreatic cancer. So, if the pancreas can protect itself when it’s healthy, what is it that inhibits this process and allows a tumour to develop? 

We know that obesity is one of biggest risk factors for pancreatic cancer, and so we’ve been looking at how this specifically impacts the tumour preventative process. We’ve also investigated how obesity impacts the general ability of the pancreas to stay healthy, and how this influences mutant cancer cells to diminish the health of the tissue.

We’re reaching the end of our project now, and what we’re seeing is that not only are obesity and other factors involved in ‘switching off’ the tumour preventative process, but that this ‘switching off’ may not be permanent. Our next question is whether we can reactivate this process – and if so, how? This would provide a method of protecting the pancreas from cancer-causing cells at an early stage, using the body’s own defence mechanisms. We need more research to fully understand how the body defends against cancer. This could then lead to new treatments, which could reactivate these defence mechanisms. Also, by understanding how risk factors such as obesity cause cancer, our research could also influence policy and cancer prevention strategies in the future.

Our work simply can’t happen without the people that support us, and I’m incredibly grateful to the donors and fundraisers that have put their faith in this project. The funding I’ve received to support my research has made a massive difference – our team has been able to ask the questions that could have a major positive impact on pancreatic cancer patients in the future.

To learn more about the link between early pancreatic cancer and high fat diets, watch Josh and Dr Catherine Hogan’s Research Showcase webinar.

Find out more about cancer research at Cardiff University.