Graphic image of human torso with pancreas colored in red.

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Stanford Medicine Scope - March 13th, 2017 - by Krista Conger

A lot has been written here and elsewhere about the unpredictability and deadliness of most forms of pancreatic cancer. In short, it’s difficult to diagnose at the early stages, and very difficult to cure in its later stages.

Now developmental biologist Seung Kim, MD, PhD, and former Stanford research associate Jonghyeob Lee, PhD, have devised a way to mimic the earliest stages of disease development using human pancreatic cells implanted into mice. They did so by introducing a set of genetic mutations often found in the disease. They published their results in Nature Communications last week.

As Kim explained to me:

All of the previous models of early-stage pancreatic cancer have been done in mice. Now we have a human model that accurately reconstitutes early cancer development in the pancreas. This will help us identify a whole new set of biomarkers that can be used for early screening or detection.

Intriguingly, one marker that jumped out at Kim and his colleagues was a hormone called neuromedin U. In 2015, researchers in Kim’s laboratory showed that neuromedin U works to decrease insulin production during times of starvation — keeping much-needed nutrients in the blood longer.

As Kim said:

This really was an amazing coincidence. Neuromedin U is not normally made in the pancreas. But our research suggests that it’s produced and secreted into the bloodstream by early-stage pancreatic cancer cells. This might explain a long-standing medical mystery as to why non-obese patients diagnosed with diabetes in their 50s or 60s, and who have low levels of insulin in their blood, are about 20-fold more likely to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer within the following year.

Screening people with this mysterious type 3c diabetes for increased levels of neuromedin U in their bloodstream might help identify those with early-stage pancreatic cancer in time to allow effective treatment, the researchers hope.

As Kim explained:

What we’ve learned is that neuromedin U is not just a marker, but is also an actor in the drama for these people diagnosed with diabetes who are destined to develop pancreatic cancer.

The researchers are now studying this possibility with other Stanford colleagues, including Monte Winslow, PhD,  Aida Habtezion, MD,  and Walter Park, MD.

Originally published at Stanford Medicine Scope Blog