The protein galectin-1 has been identified as a possible therapeutic target for pancreatic cancer. New research has demonstrated that inhibiting this protein in mice with pancreatic cancer increased survival by 20%. Results in mice further suggest that it could be a therapeutic target with no adverse effects.

Until now, the strategies for treating this tumor were aimed at attacking the tumor cells and had little success. The latest studies indicate that trying to destroy what surrounds the tumor is possibly a better strategy.

“Our contribution is directed toward this, as the reduction of galectin-1 mainly affects the immune system and the cells and structure that surrounds the tumor cells, which is called the stroma. Therefore, galectin-1 as a therapeutic target has great potential,” explained director of the research Pilar Navarro, PhD, coordinator of the research group on molecular mechanisms of tumorigenesis of Institut Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM) in Barcelona, Spain.

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Galectin-1 was known to be absent from the normal pancreas despite being strongly expressed in pancreatic tumors. Furthermore, some clear functions were known that demonstrate the relationship between galectin-1 and tumor progression in other contexts. In fact, preclinical studies for other diseases use inhibitor molecules and antibodies against this protein.

“We are aiming at its possible use in pancreatic cancer,” stated first author Neus Martínez, PhD, also of IMIM. “We have also observed that the elimination of galectin-1 in mice has no harmful consequences, indicating that it could be a safe therapeutic target with no adverse effects.”

Pancreatic tumors were studied in mice with high levels of galectin-1 and after its depletion. They observed that tumors without this protein showed less proliferation, fewer blood vessels, less inflammation, and an increase in the immune response. All these changes are associated with less aggressive tumors.

Pancreatic cancer has one of the worst prognoses, with a survival rate of less than 2% at 5 years after diagnosis. Although it is not a very common tumor, it is the fourth cause of cancer-related death in developed countries. This is due to late diagnoses that occur after metastasis and to current treatments lacking efficacy. Although it is well known at molecular level, its diagnosis and treatment are still one step behind. In fact it is one of the tumors with the least therapeutic advancements in recent years.

The researchers now want to move the results obtained to preclinical studies, where they will treat mice with pancreatic cancer with chemical inhibitors or antibodies against galectin-1 (the same treatment that would be used for a cancer patient) in order to verify the therapeutic utility of this target. If they obtain positive results and manage to halt the tumor, then they would propose its use on patients.