Research opens new avenue for bile duct cancer treatment trials

In collaboration with the Press Association

Researchers in Edinburgh have discovered how a molecular mechanism drives the growth of bile duct cancer, a rare form of the disease for which there are few treatment options.

“This promising study shows that, in animals, bile duct cancer may be especially vulnerable to drugs that block a particular set of signalling molecules” - Dr Alan Worsley, Cancer Research UK

The mechanism, known as the ‘Wnt’ pathway, is well-known to cancer experts. It consists of a network of proteins that carry signals inside cells.

Experimental drugs that block it are already being tested in patients with other cancers.

But the latest study, led by the University of Edinburgh, gives the first indication that bile duct cancer may be particularly susceptible to these drugs.

The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, showed that interfering with the Wnt pathway prevented the growth of bile duct cancer cells in the lab, and shrunk tumours in animals with bile duct cancer.

“Identifying the signals that control bile duct cancer’s growth will allow us to design better treatments that are urgently needed,” said Dr Luke Boulter, of the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, who led the research.

Plans are now in the pipeline to find out whether the drugs will be effective in patients.

Dr Alan Worsley, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK – which co-funded the study – backed the research.  

“This promising study shows that, in animals, bile duct cancer may be especially vulnerable to drugs that block a particular set of signalling molecules,” he said.

“These drugs are being tested in clinical trials for other types of cancer. The next step will be to find out if this treatment would benefit patients with bile duct cancer. There are very few treatment options for this disease, so research into new therapies is essential.”

Bile duct cancer – also known as cholangiocarcinoma – is a rare but aggressive type of cancer that affects the network of tubes that carries bile from the liver to the digestive system. It is often diagnosed at an advanced stage, meaning it is very difficult to treat with surgery.

Around 2,100 people are diagnosed with bile duct cancer each year in the UK.

Helen Moremont, from AMMF, The Cholangiocarcinoma Charity – which co-funded the work, said the discovery was “potentially very exciting”.

“Cholangiocarcinoma is an under-researched, much neglected but truly devastating disease, so it is good to see progress being made in novel areas,” she said. 

References

  • Boulter, L., et al. (2015). WNT signaling drives cholangiocarcinoma growth and can be pharmacologically inhibited Journal of Clinical Investigation DOI: 10.1172/JCI76452