Anti-Diabetic Drug Suffocates Pancreatic Cancer Stem Cells

Discovery could lead to treatments that stop cancer recurrence.

Discovery could lead to treatments that stop cancer recurrence.

Most cancer cells use a process called glycolysis, a type of metabolism that does not use oxygen to generate energy.

However, as scientists at the Queen Mary University of London’s Barts Cancer Institute and the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) have found, not all cancer cells are alike when it comes to metabolism.

Researchers have found that PancSCs can make use of a more efficient form of metabolism called oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS), which uses oxygen to generate energy. OXPHOS uses cell mitochondria that can be targeted using the anti-diabetic drug, metformin.

However, some PancSCs are able to escape the treatment due to flexibility in metabolism. This leads to cancer recurrence, but investigators think they have discovered a way to prevent such resistance and force all PancSCs to keep using OXPHOS.

Scientists believe that this discovery could be used to develop treatments that stop the stem cells using oxygen and prevent cancer returning after conventional treatment. A clinical trial is planned for late 2016.

“We might be able to exploit this reliance on oxygen by targeting the stem cells with drugs that are already available, killing the cancer by cutting off its energy supply,” said first author Dr. Patricia Sancho. “In the long term, this could mean that pancreatic cancer patients have more treatment options available to them, including a reduced risk of recurrence following surgery and other treatments.”

Pancreatic cancer is a difficult cancer to treat, due in large part to the fact that many patients do not get diagnosed or present with symptoms until the more advanced stages of the disease. Many patients do not live longer than a year post-diagnosis.

Pancreatic cancers are becoming more frequent as the frequency of obesity increases, which causes risk factors such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Due to limited treatment options and poor survival rates, finding new treatment strategies is a huge priority for researchers.

PancSCs could be an important but overlooked piece of this puzzle. While it may only make up a small portion of the tumor, it has the potential to make new tumors and spread throughout the body, even if all the other cells are killed.