Pancreas betrayed by 'double agent'

Stellate cells, a type of cell in the pancreas which normally helps the body respond to damage or disease of the pancreas, can act as a double agent when it comes to cancer.

Pancreatic stellate cellsThese mysterious cells become 'partners in crime' with pancreatic cancer cells, Oxford University researchers have shown, stimulating growth of the cancer cells and protecting them against radiotherapy.

The research, led by Professor Thomas Brunner at the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology, suggests that developing drugs to remove specific communication lines between the pancreatic cancer cells and the stellate cells could improve patients' response to radiotherapy in the future.

Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are told that they may have less than 1 year to live. Part of the reason is that by the time someone is diagnosed, the cancer is often quite advanced. Cancer Research UK figures show that around 20 in every 100 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live for 1 year or more, and that only 5 out of every 100 people live for more than 5 years.

In terms of treatments, surgery is currently the only way to cure the disease – but less than 20% of all patients can be operated on, and only 5% of these patients will be alive 5 years later. Chemotherapy helps to prolong survival after an operation, and is also used when the cancer has spread elsewhere. Radiotherapy is used along with chemotherapy in patients without spread of the disease to other organs and where surgery isn't an option.

Stellate cells – so-called because they are star shaped – normally make up around 4% of the cells in the pancreas. But upon any type of trauma (pancreatitis as well as cancer) these cells can drive an inflammatory reaction that leads to the formation of a fibrous mass. It can be up to 90% of the mass of a pancreatic tumour, for example.