New research offers hope for victims of pancreatic cancer

Kansas City University Professor Ehab Sarsour and medical student Katiana Hebbert

Pancreatic cancer, often diagnosed at advanced stages, poses a significant challenge due to its silent progression and lack of early symptoms. However, recent research offers hope for improved treatment strategies.

Mayo Clinic surgical oncologist, Chee-Chee Stucky, M.D., explains that pancreatic cancer is frequently asymptomatic until it has already spread to other organs.

The pancreas, an essential organ for digestion and blood sugar regulation, hosts several types of growths, both cancerous and noncancerous.

As humans age, the risk of cancer increases due to metabolic changes dependent on fatty acids and lipids Fatty acids help pancreatic tumor cells resist radiation and chemotherapy.

The most common form, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, originates in the cells lining the pancreatic ducts that carry digestive enzymes. Regrettably, its late detection at advanced stages hampers successful treatment.

Pancreatic cancer treatment options depend on the extent of the disease and may encompass surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of these. Identifying signs and symptoms early is challenging, as they often manifest in advanced stages.

These symptoms may include abdominal pain radiating to the back, unintended weight loss, jaundice, changes in stool and urine color, itchy skin, new-onset or worsening diabetes, blood clots, and fatigue.

A groundbreaking discovery at Kansas City University (KCU) led by Associate Professor Ehab Sarsour and student researchers offers a new direction in treating pancreatic cancer. They explored repurposing a drug designed for hyperlipidemia to target the tumor microenvironment, potentially enhancing the effects of radiation and chemotherapy.

Their research, based on Dr. Sarsour’s prior work, demonstrates that fatty acids in the microenvironment support pancreatic cancer cells, enabling them to resist treatment.

Katiana Hebbert, a medical student and research fellow, repurposed the FDA-approved drug Acipimox, originally intended for hyperlipidemia treatment, to weaken cancer cells by depriving them of nourishment.

The results were astounding. The repurposed drug not only weakened cancer cells but also halted their growth by reducing fatty acid levels both inside and outside the cancer cells. This inhibitory effect on cancer cell replication opens new avenues for treatment. Moreover, the study suggests that weaker cancer cells might require less chemotherapy and radiation for effective results, potentially minimizing toxicity for normal cells.

Hebbert’s groundbreaking work earned her recognition from the International Congress of Radiation Research (ICRR), which deemed her research “groundbreaking.” She will present her findings at the ICRR conference in Montreal, showcasing her achievements before a panel of international radiation researchers.

Dr. Sarsour’s ongoing research at KCU continues to investigate the drug’s mechanism in cells and its safety. Collaborations with the University of Iowa, the University of California, and pharmaceutical company Loxagen, Inc. aim to target defective fibroblast cells within pancreatic tumors using an investigational new drug.

This innovative work not only provides hope for more effective pancreatic cancer treatment but also showcases the potential of repurposing existing drugs to address complex diseases.

As Dr. Sarsour puts it, “We want to prove the biology of the drugs and that it does what it is supposed to do inside the cell. If we can do that, there will be more hope for those impacted by this deadly disease.”

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