What causes pancreatic cancer?

News — By on September 16, 2011 at 4:25 am

There are some important principles of cancer biology that can help us understand why pancreatic cancer develops, and the many risk factors for this disease.

Pancreatic cancer is fundamentally a disease caused by damage to the DNA (mutations). These mutations can be inherited from our parents, or they can be acquired as we age.

Inherited mutations.
We have two copies of each gene – one copy we inherit from our mother, the other copy we inherit from our father. Most individuals with an inherited cancer syndrome inherit one mutant copy (let us say from dad) and one intact (normal) copy (let us say from mom) of a cancer associated gene. As they age, some of these people will damage the good copy of the gene (the copy they got from mom) in a cell in their pancreas. That cell will have two bad copies of the gene, and, as a result, that cell in the pancreas will grow into a cancer. It doesn’t mean that everyone with an inherited predisposition will get cancer, it means that since they only have one copy of the gene, they are more likely to get cancer.

Using the analogy of the space shuttle, with the shuttle standing in for a person, and computers on the space shuttle standing in for genes. Normally the shuttle goes into space with a computer and a back-up for that computer. Only if both computers break is there a problem. For people with a genetic predisposition to pancreatic cancer, it is like going up into space with one good computer and one bad computer. If something goes wrong with the one good computer, they are in trouble.

The second way we can damage our DNA is with our behavior. The carcinogens in cigarette smoke can damage our DNA. If the carcinogens damage a key cancer-associated gene in a cell in the pancreas, then that cell may grow into a cancer. Simply put, don’t smoke!
The third way our DNA gets damaged is by chance.

– Johns Hopkins Medicine
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