Joseph Kim, M.D., is looking for answers to pancreatic cancer, and not a moment too soon.
While surgery can successfully treat many early cases of pancreatic cancer, most tumors are discovered at a late stage. And though doctors recently began using a new chemotherapy against the disease, such therapies have traditionally only shown modest effects — which explains, in part, why pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the nation.
Kim, assistant professor in City of Hope’s Division of Surgery, knows new drugs are needed. So he not only operates on patients with the disease, but he tries to find the mechanisms behind it.
Now he is zeroing in on a key protein that helps pancreatic cancer grow and spread, research that could lead to much-needed drugs. Kim studies a molecule called CXCR4. Growing evidence indicates that CXCR4 plays a major part in the cancer’s growth from its very beginnings.
“We know that cancer development and metastasis involves a variety of factors, but we believe CXCR4 is especially important in the initial development of pancreatic cancer,” said Kim.
One could say Kim discovered CXCR4 while surfing — Internet surfing. A seemingly obscure molecule, CXCR4 popped up on his screen during an online search, and Kim was intrigued with its potential.
CXCR4 is normally found on the surface of cells and is inactive in healthy cells; but he and colleagues soon discovered that it helps colorectal cancer spread. A growing body of research since has shown much more.
Most recently, Kim and his colleagues found that cells start to express high levels of the CXCR4 protein at pancreatic cancer’s beginnings, when abnormal cells first begin to form a lesion. It’s also active throughout pancreatic cancer’s process of growth and spread.
Kim and his colleagues now are studying CXCR4 in the lab and are on their way to creating potential therapies that would target CXCR4.
About pancreatic cancer
More than 37,000 people are believed to have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States and more than 33,000 are estimated to have died of the disease in 2007, according to the American Cancer Society.
While no one can prevent pancreatic cancer entirely, certain factors can raise risk for the disease:
Age: Nearly 90 percent of patients are older than 55.
Gender: Men develop this cancer slightly more often than women.
Race: African Americans are more likely to have this cancer than are whites.
Smoking: Pancreatic cancer risk is two to three times higher among smokers. About 3 out of 10 cases of pancreatic cancer are thought to be caused by smoking.
Diet: There may be a link between pancreatic cancer and high-fat diets that include a lot of red meat and pork, especially processed meat.
Obesity: Very overweight and sedentary people are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
Diabetes: Pancreatic cancer risk rises among people with this disease.
Chronic pancreatitis: Long-term inflammation of the pancreas raises risk slightly.
Work exposure: Heavy exposure to substances such as pesticides, dyes and chemicals may increase risk.
Family history: Heredity may account for about 1 in 10 cases.
Stomach problems: Having too much stomach acid or having a bacteria called H. pylori in the stomach may increase risk.
Source: American Cancer Society