Australian scientists have cracked a genetic mystery surrounding one of the deadliest cancers, potentially paving the way for new treatments.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death, with the highest mortality rate of all major cancers.
Less than five per cent of patients survive five years past diagnosis, a statistic that has not changed in almost 50 years.
Two Australian scientists led an international team in the largest ever in-depth study to sequence the the DNA structure of 100 pancreatic tumours.
The study identified more than 2000 genetic mutations, including the KRAS gene found in about 90 per cent of samples, while thousands of other mutations were present in only one or 2 per cent of tumours.
One of the lead scientists, Professor Sean Grimmond from the University of Queensland, said this suggested that each patient might need to be treated quite differently, given the diversity of genetic mutations behind the cancer.
The research also revealed a genetic pathway for the development of nerve cells was damaged in the tumours.
Professor Andrew Biankin from Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research said this axon guidance pathway was frequently impaired in pancreatic cancer patients and was often associated with a poorer outcome for those people.
"To see genetic changes in that pathway opens the door for potential new therapies in future," Prof Biankin said.
"It is a new marker of pancreatic cancer that can be used to direct prognoses and treatments."
He said the findings had already been used, with the permission of patients whose tumours had been analysed, to adjust their treatment, with dramatic implications.
Some of those patients, who had been given a dire prognosis with just two or three months to live, were still alive one year later after their treatment was tweaked, Prof Biankin said.
The research, published in the journal Nature this week, was part of the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC) and involved more than 20 Australian hospitals and research institutions.