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Stem cell find could advance pancreatic cancer treatment

WASHINGTON -- Researchers have discovered a small population of stem cells in pancreatic cancer that appear to drive tumor growth, opening the door for a potential new approach for treating this particularly deadly disease.

Writing in the journal Cancer Research yesterday, University of Michigan scientists said finding cancer stem cells in pancreatic tumors could lead to the development of drugs intended to target and kill these cells.

Scientists have toiled with little success to find better ways to treat cancer of the pancreas, which has the lowest survival rate of any major form of cancer.

It kills 97 percent of people diagnosed with it within five years -- half within six months of diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer spreads quickly and is rarely detected at an early stage. In the United States alone, it kills 33,000 people a year.

The pancreas is a gland located behind the stomach that secretes a digestive fluid and the hormone insulin.

"The clinical implications of this work are significant," Dr. Diane Simeone, director of the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center and lead author of the study, said in an interview.

"We've made baby steps in improving the survival in these patients -- on the order of a few months -- over the past decade or so. But we really haven't had a major breakthrough in coming up with something that has the potential to provide a cure," she said.

Simeone said there is emerging evidence that within cancers, there is a small subset of cells that are responsible for the growth and propagation of tumors. The idea is that these cells with stem-cell characteristics -- the ability to self-renew and differentiate into other cell types -- are the ones fueling tumor formation.

Killing cancer stem cells is akin to yanking out the root of a weed, Simeone said.

Some cancer specialists contend that the key to beating cancer is to target these stem cells. That would represent a different approach from the current one of shrinking tumors by killing as many cells as possible.

The current approach may be flawed, these specialists say, because cancer stem cells may resist standard therapies.