OU College of Medicine Researcher Publishes Pancreatic Cancer Finding in Leading Journal
Published: Thursday, September 1, 2022
OKLAHOMA CITY — One of the keys to designing better treatments for cancer is to better understand the biology of the cancer itself. Min Li, Ph.D., a researcher at the OU College of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, recently published a study that further illuminates the mechanisms of pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest cancers with a five-year survival rate of only 11%.
Li published the paper in Gastroenterology, a leading journal on GI tract disease. It is his fourth paper published in the journal in the past three years, each providing additional understanding about a cancer that consistently evades successful treatment.
In his latest study, Li analyzed the behavior of two different types of RNA — circular RNAs and micro RNAs. He found that a specific circular RNA can regulate (control) the growth of pancreatic cancer cells by “sponging,” or binding to, a specific type of micro RNA. This process is the same for cachexia, muscle wasting that affects the majority of patients with pancreatic cancer.
Li’s research group is the first to make this discovery about the behavior of these two RNAs in pancreatic cancer. The finding is important because once the mechanism of a behavior is understood, it could potentially serve as a target for treating the cancer.
“More effective treatment comes from more knowledge about the biology of pancreatic cancer,” Li said.
In Li’s previous three research publications in Gastroenterology, he has focused on ZIP4, a protein that transports zinc throughout the body. ZIP4 serves as a “master switch” for several things to occur in pancreatic cancer. While zinc is important for good health, too much of the heavy metal causes problems. Li discovered that overexpression of ZIP4 causes pancreatic cancer cells to be more resistant to chemotherapy. ZIP4 overexpression also prompts tumor cells to transform themselves in a manner that allows them to stealthily travel to the body’s other organs.
In addition, he found that ZIP4 plays a role in the onset of cachexia.
Li is nationally and internationally known for his work to understand the mechanisms of pancreatic cancer. In November, he will become president of the American Pancreatic Association, the largest professional organization for physicians and researchers specializing in pancreatic diseases.
Li is George Lynn Cross Research Professor of Medicine, Surgery and Cell Biology in the OU College of Medicine. He also holds the Virginia Kerley Cade Endowed Chair in Cancer Treatment and is Associate Director for Global Oncology for OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.