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pancreatic cancer

KRAS Targeted Cancer Strategy Shows Early Promise

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KRAS in active and inactive states

Caption: Mutant KRAS protein (white) keeps switch (red/pink) open in active state for GTP (arrow). After treatment with ARS-1620 (blue), switch is trapped in inactive GDP-bound state.
Credit: Adapted from Cell. 2018 Jan 25;172(3):578-589.

Of the more than 1.7 million Americans expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year, nearly one-third will have tumors that contain at least one mutation in the RAS family of genes [1]. That includes 95 percent of pancreatic cancers and 45 percent of colon cancers. These mutations result in the production of defective proteins that can drive cancer’s uncontrolled growth, as well as make cancers resistant to therapies. As you might expect, RAS has emerged as a major potential target for fighting cancer. Unfortunately, it is a target that’s proven very difficult to “hit” despite nearly three decades of work by researchers in both the private and public sectors, leading NIH’s National Cancer Institute to begin The RAS Initiative in 2013. This important effort has made advances with RAS that have translational potential.

Recently, I was excited to hear of progress in targeting a specific mutant form of KRAS, which is a protein encoded by a RAS gene involved in many lung cancers and some pancreatic and colorectal cancers. The new study, carried out by a pharmaceutical research team in mouse models of human cancer, is the first to show that it is possible to shrink a tumor in a living creature by directly inhibiting mutant KRAS protein [2].


New ‘Liquid Biopsy’ Shows Early Promise in Detecting Cancer

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Liquid Biopsy Schematic

Caption: Liquid biopsy. Tumor cells shed protein and DNA into bloodstream for laboratory analysis and early cancer detection.

Early detection usually offers the best chance to beat cancer. Unfortunately, many tumors aren’t caught until they’ve grown relatively large and spread to other parts of the body. That’s why researchers have worked so tirelessly to develop new and more effective ways of screening for cancer as early as possible. One innovative approach, called “liquid biopsy,” screens for specific molecules that tumors release into the bloodstream.

Recently, an NIH-funded research team reported some encouraging results using a “universal” liquid biopsy called CancerSEEK [1]. By analyzing samples of a person’s blood for eight proteins and segments of 16 genes, CancerSEEK was able to detect most cases of eight different kinds of cancer, including some highly lethal forms—such as pancreatic, ovarian, and liver—that currently lack screening tests.

In a study of 1,005 people known to have one of eight early-stage tumor types, CancerSEEK detected the cancer in blood about 70 percent of the time, which is among the best performances to date for a blood test. Importantly, when CancerSEEK was performed on 812 healthy people without cancer, the test rarely delivered a false-positive result. The test can also be run relatively cheaply, at an estimated cost of less than $500.


Snapshots of Life: A Van Gogh Moment for Pancreatic Cancer

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Pancreatic Cancer

Credit: Nathan Krah, University of Utah,
Salt Lake City

Last year, Nathan Krah sat down at his microscope to view a thin section of pre-cancerous pancreatic tissue from mice. Krah, an MD/PhD student in the NIH-supported lab of Charles Murtaugh at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, had stained the tissue with three dyes, each labelling a different target of interest. As Krah leaned forward to look through the viewfinder, he fully expected to see the usual scattershot of color. Instead, he saw enchanting swirls reminiscent of the famous van Gogh painting, The Starry Night.

In this eye-catching image featured in the University of Utah’s 2016 Research as Art exhibition, red indicates a keratin protein found in the cytoskeleton of precancerous cells; green, a cell adhesion protein called E-cadherin; and yellow, areas where both proteins are present. Finally, blue marks the cell nuclei of the abundant immune cells and fibroblasts that have expanded and infiltrated the organ as a tumor is forming. Together, they paint a fascinating new portrait of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common form of pancreatic cancer.


LabTV: Curious about Pancreatic Cancer

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Lindsey Briton

Growing up in Blacksburg, VA, Lindsey Brinton was constantly asking her parents how everything worked. She took this expansive natural curiosity with her to the University of Virginia, where she earned undergraduate degrees in French literature and biomedical engineering. Now a Ph.D. candidate at UVA in the lab of Kimberly Kelly—and the subject of our latest LabTV video—Brinton is posing interesting questions about pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat, in part, because it often spreads early and is diagnosed too late. Brinton’s research is focused on the cells that surround the tumor, the so-called stroma, and on the risk of metastasis. She wonders whether these cells display unique targets on their surface that, once discovered, can be exploited to kill the tumor cells. It’s certainly challenging research. Failures far outnumber successes. But as Brinton points out, endurance, perseverance, and keeping your eye on the big picture can lead to success.


Lessons from a High School Student: Motivation + Perseverance = Success

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Emily Ashkin Video

It may surprise you to learn that the poised young woman featured in this video was a sophomore in high school at the time the film was made. Today, Emily Ashkin is a high school senior with impressive laboratory experience and science awards to her name.  As it happens, she’s also introducing me when I deliver a keynote address at the Melanoma Research Alliance’s annual scientific meeting — today, here in Washington, D.C.

What struck me most when I heard Emily’s story was her fearlessness. When mentoring young students, helping some to believe in themselves can be a real challenge. Not Emily. She faces her challenges by seeking solutions, asking—as she does in the video—“Why can’t that be me?”