Lara Lewis - Spice Up Your Life: Can Turmeric Help Prevent Pancreatic Cancer?

In the 1970s 3% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survived five years or more. Forty years on and that figure is still 3%. In this article, Lara Lewis of the Department of Cancer Studies and Molecular Medicine describes her research exploring a new approach to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

About My Research

Early detection of pancreatic cancer is problematic due to the lack of specific symptoms and reliable tests; consequently most patients present with advanced disease with limited treatment options. As a result pancreatic cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death in the UK with most patients surviving less than twelve months after diagnosis.

Many changes occur in tumour cells, including altered expression of genes and changes to important regulatory proteins. Ribonucleic acids (RNA) translate information stored within DNA into protein production. MicroRNAs (very short RNAs) have been found to regulate gene expression. The abnormal production of these microRNAs is linked to disease progression in various cancers, including pancreatic.

There are many naturally occurring compounds in plants with protective properties against disease one of which is curcumin; this active component is responsible for the bright yellow colour of the Indian spice turmeric. It possesses anti-inflammatory and anti-tumorigenic properties and can potentially alter the expression of microRNAs and thus gene regulation. It is under investigation in combination with existing chemotherapeutics for the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

My research aims to identify abnormally expressed microRNAs that may prove useful as diagnostic/prognostic markers for pancreatic cancer and also to determine if curcumin could modify their expression.

Research Approach

MicroRNAs regulate different biological processes in the human body through the control of genes. There are many (>1000) known microRNAs each one having the capacity to target and control hundreds of downstream signaling targets. In order to identify microRNAs which may be of diagnostic or prognostic relevance a large scale screen known as a microRNA microarray can be used.

A microRNA microarray is a platform on which there are many different spots (each spot is specific to a probe). These spots have the capacity to identify the different microRNAs which may be present within a sample at varying levels. The intensities of these spots represent the different levels of microRNAs in the samples being analyzed.

MicroRNA Microarray

MicroRNA Microarray

Initially experiments were carried out on human derived pancreatic cancer cell lines to determine the effect of curcumin on cell survival and cell growth. Using this information a dose of curcumin (5µM over 24hours) was determined with the potential to alter microRNA expression in these cells. Pancreatic cancer cells treated with this dose of curcumin were processed and samples obtained were analyzed using the large scale microRNA microarray. Any observed increases or decreases in expression from the microRNA microarrays were then confirmed using more sensitive techniques.

Research Findings

Various techniques were used to try and identify microRNAs and associated genes which may have become altered in pancreatic cancer. Curcumin is known to alter the expression of many different proteins; the exact mechanism however is not understood. It has been suggested that curcumin may act through modulating microRNAs and that they in turn could affect many downstream targets. Following treatment with curcumin changes in the expression of several microRNAs were found using the large scale microRNA microarray. Further tests confirmed a statistically significant increase (p<0.05) for microRNA-34b following curcumin treatment. Recent studies have shown that increased expression of this microRNA can inhibit the progression of pancreatic cancer.

Results from these and similar experiments will help to identify biomarkers for earlier detection of pancreatic cancer and indicate whether curcumin in combination with other drugs is an effective treatment for this disease. Further work is needed to determine if any changes observed in the human-derived cell lines following curcumin treatment are replicated in cancer patients.

About Lara Lewis

Lara LewisLara Lewis is a research student working towards completion of her doctoral degree in the Department of Cancer Studies and Molecular Medicine.

Lara is supervised by Professor Maggie Manson, Dr Martin Bushell, and Dr Howard Pringle.

Department of Cancer Studies and Molecular Medicine
University of Leicester
Leicester Royal Infirmary - Clinical Sciences Building

Lara will present her work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 27 June 2013 - see Lara's Festival poster.

The Festival is open to all members of the University community and the public - book your place here.

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