Menu

Disrupting tumour defences in pancreatic cancer

Disrupting tumour defences in pancreatic cancer

1st November 2019

At Barts Cancer Institute in London, scientists are working hard to find ways to pull down cancers defences and make it vulnerable to treatment. We met with Dr Angus Cameron, who is leading a project there supported by Worldwide Cancer Research.

“Thanks for not noticing the limp” said Angus as he chaperoned us to his office. His limp was completely unnoticeable, but we learned it’s been a yearlong recovery.

“I’ve been on crutches for the past year, recovering from a rather unusual accident. I was running the London Marathon last year raising money for brain tumour research after my good friend Nick passed away, and I was in the home straight, literally 50m from the line and my femur snapped!”

Not deterred by what must have been a painful experience, Angus is determined to get back and complete the marathon for Nick as soon as possible.

In memory of Nick

“My friend Nick was vivacious, loud, funny, great company. He also loved to dress well and amassed a crazy collection of scarves over the years. It was almost a trade mark. After his death his brother and closest friends inherited his scarf collection and we now all have a couple as reminders of our friendship. When I wear it, it reminds me to stay positive, keep perspective and live life to the full. Just as Nick did.”

Angus’s sense of determination is reflected in his excitement and drive to better the lives of cancer patients through his research.

“Our lab is focused on the interaction between normal cells and cancer cells. And we are specifically interested in pancreatic cancer. The biology of pancreatic cancer is quite unusual because tumours are largely made up of fibrotic tissue, which is full of a normal cell type called fibroblasts. In fact, cancer cells often only make up 10-20% of the mass of a pancreatic tumour.”

In pancreatic tumours, these fibroblasts are hijacked by the cancer cells and help them to spread into the nearby tissue. They also act as a protective shield, preventing drugs from being able to penetrate into the tumour, and preventing cells of the immune system from accessing the tumour where they can help to eradicate cancer cells.

More effective treatments

“Our project is trying to specifically target the activation of fibroblasts by cancer cells in order to help make treatments such as immunotherapy and chemotherapy work better for pancreatic cancer patients,” explained Angus.

Pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at an advanced stage when it is too late for treatments to have any real positive effect. Patients often only survive for a year or so after their diagnosis, and in many cases, the patient may only live a couple of months or even weeks. This grim picture hasn’t changed in 40 years.

Angus’s project started in April 2018 and was only possible thanks to a partnership set up between Worldwide Cancer Research and Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund. His work focusses on a particular network of proteins found in fibroblasts that helps them to stay in communication with pancreatic cancer cells. Reflecting on the achievements of the past year, Angus told us that there are three ways in which they’ve really made progress.

“The first thing we’ve discovered is precisely how a type of healthy cell, called fibroblasts, are able to communicate with cancer cells, and importantly, how this changes the way the tumour behaves.”

“We’ve also fully established our pancreatic tumour model in mice, which we are now using to test how cutting off the communication between fibroblasts and cancer cells will affect the growth of real tumours. This is a critical step for taking our findings towards the clinic.”

Working towards clinical trials

“And finally, we’re very excited because we’ve got our drug discovery pipeline up and running. In the next few weeks, we will start screening tens of thousands of chemical compounds to look for new drugs that specially cut off the communication between fibroblasts and cancer cells. Some of these compounds will be the precursors for drugs that we will one day be able to test further and hopefully take into clinical trials.”