Pancreatic Cancer

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

Do we know what causes pancreatic cancer?

Scientists still do not know exactly what causes most cases of pancreatic cancer, but they have found several risk factors that can make a person more likely to get this disease. Recent research has shown that some of these risk factors affect the DNA of cells in the pancreas, which can result in abnormal cell growth and may cause tumors to form.

Researchers have made great progress in understanding how certain changes in DNA can cause normal cells to become cancerous. DNA is the chemical in each cell that carries our genes — the instructions for how our cells function. We look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than the way we look. Some genes contain instructions for controlling when our cells grow and divide. Certain genes that promote cell division are called oncogenes. Others that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA mutations (defects) that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.

Several cancer family syndromes have been found in which inherited DNA mutations cause a very high risk of developing certain cancers. In some of these, there is an increased risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Researchers have characterized many of these DNA changes in the past few years. (See the section “What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?”)

Most often, DNA mutations of oncogenes or tumor suppressor genes related to cancers of the pancreas occur after you are born, rather than having been inherited. These acquired mutations may result from cancer-causing chemicals in our environment, diet, or tobacco smoke. Sometimes they occur for no apparent reason.

Often, the DNA changes seen in sporadic (non-inherited) cases of pancreatic cancer are the same as those seen in inherited cases. For example, most sporadic cases of exocrine pancreatic cancer have changes in the p16 gene. This is why scientists are studying inherited cases closely to learn more about what causes pancreatic cancer. Some specific DNA abnormalities recently discovered in pancreatic cancer are discussed in the section “What's new in pancreatic cancer research and treatment?

Last Medical Review: 01/28/2013
Last Revised: 02/05/2014