New pancreatic cancer research has outlined exactly why the disease is so deadly.
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British-led scientists have discovered that the aggressive form of cancer splits into related tumours, but which are genetically different.
Patients with pancreatic cancer generally face a bleak outlook, with only a 2%-3% chance of survival more than five years after diagnosis - however there is brighter news from American experts.
They discovered that pancreatic cancer grows far more slowly than previously thought and that many tumours take nearly 20 years to start their deadly migration around the body, opening up a wide window for potentially effective treatment.
The British research focused on the forces of evolution at work in rapidly mutating pancreatic tumours. Scientists demonstrated that not only does the cancer change between patients, but it creates genetically different strains at each new tumour site within a single person.
Effectively, 10 different sites of a spreading “metastatic” cancer are 10 different but related tumours.
Dr Peter Campbell, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, said: “We have always known that pancreatic cancer is a particularly aggressive disease. This study illustrates why it is so challenging. Each metastasis is its own tumour, each evolving, each striving for dominance, each adapting to life outside the pancreas.
“When we treat cancer that has spread through the body, we’re not just treating one tumour, we might be treating tens of genetically distinct tumours.”