A fungus found on the skin and scalp of humans and animals may drive pancreatic cancer. A study published in Nature last month found that the fungus, a yeast known as Malassezia (which has also been linked to inflammatory bowel disease), can settle in the pancreas (an organ that was thought to be sterile until this decade), where fungus can proliferate 3,000 times faster than healthy tissue found in the organ. The rapid proliferation of Malassezia appears to fuel the growth of cancer tumors in the pancreas based on the study’s findings.
To confirm the migration of fungi to the pancreas and its role in cancer tumor growth, scientists injected mice with fungi illuminated with a green fluorescent protein. In just minutes, the fungi travelled from the digestive tract to the pancreas. Scientists also observed that Malassezia was abundant in both mice and humans who developed pancreatic cancer. In mice, antifungal drugs eliminated the fungus and halted the development of cancer tumors. In addition, when a group of mice was injected with different fungi (other than Malassezia), cancer tumor growth was not accelerated.
Based on statistics quoted by the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins University, pancreatic cancer is the 4th leading cause of cancer deaths. Approximately 44,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, and about 38,000 of these patients will die. The high mortality rate is due to the fact that pancreatic cancer can go undetected for long periods of time, and is often at an advanced stage once diagnosed.
Being a difficult cancer to diagnose and treat, these findings regarding the role of fungus in pancreatic cancer causality are exciting. While much more research is needed, scientists are hopeful that these findings will lead to more promising diagnostic and therapeutic tools for pancreatic cancer in the future.