Protein Reveals New Potential Target for Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

Research may guide the development of new treatments targeted at the CD9 protein to cut the supply of glutamine to cancer stem cells.

Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute have identified a protein that drives the growth of pancreatic cancer and that could be a target for new treatments.

Published in Nature Cell Biology, the study examined the most common type of pancreatic cancer, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, an aggressive type of cancer that develops from secretory and tubular cells of the pancreas. Currently, there are no effective therapies to treat this cancer and only 8% of patients survive beyond 5 years after diagnosis.

The researchers analyzed a group of cancer stem cells that have the ability to start new tumors and can also differentiate into different types of tumor cells. Being able to identify whether these cells are present is an important step towards the development of new treatments.

By analyzing the gene expression of these cancer stem cells, the research team found that a protein, called CD9, is present on their surface both when the tumor is developing and established. Therefore, this protein could be used as a marker to help locate these cells. Not only did the study further establish that the protein is a marker of cancer stem cells, it also found that it promotes their malignant behavior.

The researchers altered the amount of CD9 in tumor cells and found that when the levels of this protein were reduced, smaller tumors formed. Alternatively, increasing levels of CD9 made cancer cells more aggressive and able to form large tumors quickly.

These findings were supported by existing clinical data showing that patients whose tumor cells have more CD9 have a poorer clinical prognosis. Approximately 10% of people with this type of cancer have amplified levels of CD9.

According to the study authors, these cells are vital to pancreatic cancer. Even if a few of them survive, the cancer is able to come back. Therefore, it is important to find effective ways to remove the cells and stop future cancer growth.

The study authors note that there needs to be more research to validate the importance of CD9 in human pancreatic cancer. To understand the mechanism behind how CD9 bolsters cancer, the team looked into the cancer stem cells' metabolism. Their findings showed that CD9 increases the rate cells take up glutamine, an amino acid that helps provide energy for the cancer to grow.

From this, researchers now know that the protein is linked to cancer stem cells and helps cancer growth. This study can guide the development of new treatments targeted at the protein to cut the supply of glutamine to cancer stem cells.


  • Protein could offer therapeutic target for pancreatic cancer [press release]. The Francis Crick Institute. Published November 12, 2019. Accessed December 4, 2019.