Quirks & Quarks

A common fungus may drive tumour growth in pancreatic cancer

Scientists hope this discovery could better help them monitor and treat this deadly cancer

Scientists hope this discovery could better help them monitor and treat this deadly cancer

This photomicrograph of a skin scale tissue sample, reveals the presence of numerous Malassezia furfur fungal organisms. (Dr. Lucille K. Georg / CDC)
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Pancreatic cancer is one of the world's deadliest cancers and is as hard to treat as it is to recognize. That is why a new study suggesting that a common fungus might be driving tumour growth in the pancreas is so intriguing. 

"This is a new type of mechanism that apparently pancreatic cancer has to make it more aggressive to make it grow faster," said Dr. Berk Aykut, a postdoctoral research fellow at the New York University School of Medicine in conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. 

Pancreatic cancer has a dismal five year survival rate because more often than not, people don't know they have it until it's already progressed and spread in the body, and it also doesn't respond well to chemotherapy.

This new study published in the journal Nature, points to new ways to potentially monitor and improve treatment options for pancreatic cancer. 

Predominant fungus in pancreatic cancer 

Until recently, scientists thought the pancreas was sterile, but then they discovered bacteria in it, which opened up the door to fungus potentially be present. 

Aykut analyzed pancreatic tissue samples from normal and cancerous mice and humans to find a 3000 fold increase of fungus in the cancerous tissues. 

The predominant species of fungus they discovered in the cancerous tissues is a common yeast called Malassezia that lives on human skin and can cause dandruff. 

Alex Trebek raises pancreatic cancer awareness in Public Service Announcement for World Pancreatic Cancer Day coming up on November 21st. (World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition)

Role of the fungus in pancreatic cancer

Aykut gave an antifungal treatment to mice with pancreatic cancer and their tumours were smaller compared to the controls. And when Aykut gave mice the yeast ​​​​​Malassezia, their tumours grew faster. 

He plans to investigate if they can detect this fungus in the stool of patients at risk of developing the disease to better monitor it. He also hopes to test whether antifungal drugs can work in humans to improve traditional treatment options, based on successful use of this strategy in mice. 

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