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The Importance of Good Communication: Cell Signaling and How it Relates to Cancer

In 2007, the United States Congress declared May as Cancer Research Month. We know that supporting cancer research is important, ultimately leading to earlier detection, better treatments, possibly even a cure. But, what actually goes on in an academic cancer research lab?

An important focus of study within cancer research is called signal transduction. Basically, all of the cells in your body need external and internal signals to tell them what to do – grow, move, secrete something, live, die, etc. These messages are transmitted via a series of proteins, in an extremely complex and carefully regulated process. In fact, misbehavior of these very pathways is often what causes and sustains cancer.

A protein called K-Ras is mutated in about 90% of pancreatic cancer cases. Under normal conditions, the K-Ras protein responds to other proteins, called receptors. Receptors sit on the surface of a cell, half outside, half inside. As their name suggests, receptors receive signals from proteins outside of the cell, and convey the message to proteins within the cell, instructing the cell what to do. However, mutation of K-Ras bypasses the need for receptor activation, leading to a pathway that’s always “on”. In the case of K-Ras, this signal instructs the cell to grow and survive. Tumors form because cells ignore the normal signals that tell them it’s time to stop growing, or that it’s time to die. Therefore, these aberrations in cell signaling pathways are integral to the formation and growth of cancer.

Historically, cancer treatments (chemotherapy and radiation therapy) target any cell that is actively growing, rather than just attacking the cancer cells. However, a deeper understanding of the signaling pathways that are hyperactive in cancer cells can lead to development of treatments that target just the cancer cells, and spare normal cells. This type of targeted treatment carries the potential to more effectively kill the cancer cells, and alleviate detrimental side effects to the patient.

Many labs, including several funded by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, are tirelessly working to figure out how to target K-Ras, or other signaling proteins behaving abnormally in pancreatic cancer cells, in order to develop novel treatment options. Encouragingly, breakthroughs have occurred in leukemia and breast cancer, where understanding of the cancer cell signaling has led to specific, targeted drugs that have revolutionized the treatment of these diseases. The signal transduction research taking place in labs throughout the country creates hope that a new treatment for pancreatic cancer might be next.

Read more about the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s research grant recipients.