Scientists in the United States have identified for the first time the stem cells linked to pancreatic cancer.
They believe this is a major breakthrough which will help in the development of new treatments for the deadly form of cancer.
Pancreatic cancer has one of the worst survival rates of any major malignancy with only three percent of patients surviving five years after their diagnosis.
The pancreas is a gland located behind the stomach that secretes a digestive fluid and the hormone insulin.
Lead author Dr. Diane Simeone, director of the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at the University of Michigan believes they may now have a new avenue where the cancer stem cells within pancreatic cancer can possibly be targeted.
Simeone says there is growing evidence that within cancers, there is a small subset of cells that are responsible for the growth and propagation of tumours which appear to have the ability to self-renew and differentiate into other cell types and they drive tumour growth.
Current cancer treatments sometimes fail because cancer stem cells are not destroyed.
Therefore the ability to identify cancer stem cells can help scientists develop drugs intended to target and kill these cells.
For the study, tissue samples from 10 pancreatic cancer patients were implanted into mice to grow new tumours and when researchers examined certain markers on the surface of the tumour cells they discovered a small number of cells that were able to rapidly produce new tumours.
These were the pancreatic cancer stem cells.
Stem cells have been identified in several other kinds of cancers, including brain, breast, central nervous system, colon, and leukemia.
The findings are published in the current issue of the journal Cancer Research.