Pancreatic Cancer Stem Cells Could Be “Suffocated” by an Anti-Diabetic Drug

A new study by researchers from Queen Mary University of London’s Barts Cancer Institute and the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) in Madrid shows that pancreatic cancer stem cells (PancSCs) are very dependent on oxygen-based metabolism, and can be “suffocated” with a drug that is already in use to treat diabetes.

Cancer cells typically rely on glycolysis; a metabolic pathway that degrades glucose without using oxygen. However, it turns out that not all cancer cells are alike when it comes to their metabolism.

PancSCs use another metabolic process called oxidative phosphorylation or OXPHOS to completely oxidize glucose all the way to carbon dioxide and water. OXPHOS uses large quantities of oxygen and occurs in the mitochondria. However, this is precisely the process that is inhibited by the anti-diabetic drug, metformin.

Ever crafty, some PancSCs manage to adapt to such a treatment by varying their metabolism, and this leads to a recurrence of the cancer. However, this English/Spanish team thinks that they have discovered a way to prevent such resistance and compel all PancSCs to keep using OXPHOS. This new discovery might open the door to new treatments that stop cancer stem cells using oxygen and prevent cancers from returning after conventional treatments. A clinical trial is planned for later next year.

Dr Patricia Sancho, first author of the research paper, said: “We might be able to exploit this reliance on oxygen by targeting the stem cells with drugs that are already available, killing the cancer by cutting off its energy supply. In the long-term, this could mean that pancreatic cancer patients have more treatment options available to them, including a reduced risk of recurrence following surgery and other treatments.”

PancSCs become resistant to metformin by suppressing a protein called MYC and increasing the activity of a protein called PGC-1α. However, this resistance mechanism of PancSCs can be abolished if a drug called menadione is given. Menadione increases the amount of reactive oxygen species in mitochondria. Additionally, resistance to metformin can be prevented or even reversed if the MYC protein is inhibited by genetic or pharmacological means. Therefore, the specific metabolic features of pancreatic Cancer Stem Cells are amendable to therapeutic intervention and can provide the basis for developing more effective therapies to combat this lethal cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is still one of the most difficult cancer types to treat. It rarely causes symptoms early on and does not usually trigger diagnosis until its later and more advanced stages. Unfortunately, many patients do not live longer than a year after being diagnosed. These cancers are also becoming more common due to obesity, which increases the patient’s risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes, which are pancreatic cancer risk factors. Limited treatment options and a failure to improve survival rates mean that finding new treatment strategies is a priority.

PancSCs could be an important but as yet overlooked piece of this puzzle, since they compose only a small proportion of the tumor. PancSCs also have the potential to make new tumors, even if all the other cells are killed, and are prone to spreading around the body (metastasis). Therefore killing these PancSCs is a better way to treat such dangerous cancers.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).