Why is pancreatic cancer so aggressive?

Pancreatic cancer is considered the most aggressive among the most common forms of cancer.

The researchers discovered that a molecular mechanism called Factor Zeb1, which is part of an embryonic program called EMT joint in humans and animals, is activated in aggressive cancer cells that start to metastasise very early.

This molecular mechanism is essential in the initial stage of embryonic development when theorganism is being formed. The embryo cells must be able to move from one place to another and adapt to give rise to the body’s different tissues, such as skin, bone, brain, etc.

After embryonic development, in normal adult cells, this factor is inactive or blocked because it could be potentially dangerous.

“In an adult, a cell from the pancreas, or from the breast or from wherever, should not be able to move through the body and end up in the brain or anywhere else or organ,” 

But the cells of the most aggressive tumours can “reactivate” this dangerous quality, which is key to developing metastasis.

“When Factor Zeb1 is present, malignant cells can begin to move and settle in different parts of the body such as the lungs, liver, brain… and begin to metastasise,” said the expert and leader of the research. Their conclusions have just been published in the specialised journal Nature Cell Biology.

Thus, when metastasis occurs, cancer cells break away from the original or primary tumour, travel through the blood or lymphatic system, and form a new tumour in other organs or tissues of the body.

For example, if breast cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are breast cancer cells, not lung cancer cells.

According to Professor Brabletz, Factor Zeb1 is present in aggressive cancer cells due to a mutation in specific genes, which triggers the reactivation of the aforementioned embryonic program.


  • Late detection
  • Poor response to treatment
  • Early metastasis

A key factor also in other forms of cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is often detected late, does not respond well to treatment, and begins metastasising very early.

What the German researchers managed to do for the first time, according to Brabletz, was to turn off this particular factor, Zeb1, in pancreatic cancer in mice.

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