Addiction to a single protein could keep the key to tame one of the deadliest cancers in the world, suggests the investigation.
Scientists have found that a particularly aggressive subtype of pancreatic cancer needs the molecule to grow and break.
Now they are looking for ways to eliminate the protein, TP63, to increase the chances of survival for patients with this disease.
Pancreatic cancer, which affects almost 10,000 people every year in the United Kingdom, has a bad reputation as one of the most lethal cancers.
On average, a patient with pancreatic cancer will survive only about two years after diagnosis.
But some individuals with an especially aggressive subtype of the disease often succumb before before, after less than a year.
US researchers who investigated this sub-type of super-deadly pancreatic cancer found that the TP63 gene was exclusively active in its tumor cells.
Writing in the journal Cell Reports, they point out that the molecule does not belong to pancreatic cells.
P63 often plays a role in the production of squamous cells, long and thin cells required for skin formation.
But in pancreatic tumors, the cancer protein version – TP63 – fueled growth out of control and helped spread the disease around the body.
The good news was that the cancer seemed to depend on the molecule for its constant survival, generating hopes of developing specific treatments.
Lead scientist Dr. Timothy Somerville of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York said: "Cancer cells have become so dependent on P63 that they really need P63 for their continued growth.
"So, moving forward, we are looking for approaches to suppress inappropriate P63 activity as an option for treatment for patients."
Another goal for the team is to find out why the gene becomes active in the pancreas in the first place.
"If we can prevent this from happening, it could be really good for the survival of this group of patients with the most vulnerable cancer," said Dr. Somerville.
– Press Association