The U.S. Army has awarded a $559,799 grant to University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher Yuliya Pylayeva-Gupta, PhD, to investigate the role of the immune system in promoting pancreatic cancer’s spread.

UNC Lineberger’s Yuliya Pylayeva-Gupta, PhD.

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and it is one of the deadliest cancers. Just 9.3 percent of people with the disease live five years after diagnosis in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. Pylayeva-Gupta, assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Genetics, is studying ways that the body’s own immune system can actually modulate this disease.

“Pancreatic cancer is an extremely aggressive disease, and is projected to become the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States by 2020,” Pylayeva-Gupta said. “Recent studies have shown that immune cells contribute to tumor growth and metastasis. It is critical that we understand how immune cells promote metastasis, and what the therapeutic implications would be of interrupting their function.”

Pylayeva-Gupta was awarded the Career Development Award from the Department of Defense to study how the loss of a certain immune signal, cytokine IL-23, can contribute to the spread, or metastasis, of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, and whether it could be a future therapeutic target.

The researchers will investigate the part that IL-23 plays in metastasis, its overall immune-related function, and its link with pancreatic cancer prognosis. Pylayeva-Gupta said their early data has shown that this signal helps determine whether pancreatic cancer cells will develop into invasive cells that are more likely to spread.

“Our early data has uncovered a role for IL-23 in repressing a cell transition process that increases migration of cancer cells, and enables them to spread into surrounding tissues,” she said. “Cells that have made this transition are more likely to undergo metastasis to distant organs.”

The study is a new direction for Pylayeva-Gupta’s lab.  In previous work, she led a study that found the immune signal IL-35 can help prevent a different kind of immune cells, the cancer-killing immune cells called cytotoxic T-cells, from reaching pancreatic cancer.