HUNTER cancer researchers have struck gold in pancreatic cancer research, all thanks to the support of a little op shop in Rutherford.
The discovery of increased levels of a protein called sortilin in pancreatic cancer cells has given researchers from the University of Newcastle, Hunter Medical Research Institute and Calvary Mater new hope to develop targeted treatment for the devastating disease.
"This key finding means inhibiting sortilin with specific drugs or antibodies would decrease pancreatic cancer cell invasiveness," biochemist Professor Hubert Hondermarck said.
"Therefore, targeting sortilin may complement and improve the efficacy of existing treatments."
But he said this important research would not have been possible without the support of a troop of dedicated volunteers behind a popular op shop in Rutherford.
The Maitland Cancer Appeal Committee has raised "hundreds of thousands" of dollars for cancer research in the Hunter Valley for close to 40 years.
With funds raised via their op shop, the committee supplies linen for terminally ill patients in the Hunter three days a week.
Anything left over supports cancer research, including the $200,000 recently awarded Professor Hondermarck and his team.
For committee founder Alice Bennis, it's personal.
Mrs Bennis lost her mother to pancreatic cancer just months after losing her 15-year-old daughter, Narelle, to leukaemia.
"I know what it's like to lose somebody," she said.
"But there is great comfort in helping people."
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All of the op shop volunteers had been touched by cancer in some way. "Just recently, we lost one of our volunteers to pancreatic cancer, and another to ovarian cancer - all within a couple of days," Mrs Bennis said. "It was so, so sad."
She said it felt good to be able to raise such significant funds to support a worthy cause that could change lives and outcomes.
"It's a very good little op shop. It does very well, and it has meant that over the years we have been able to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to cancer research, and our money has to stay within the Hunter Valley," she said.
As there are currently no targeted therapies for pancreatic cancer, the research team hopes this will offer a new target to improve the efficacy of existing treatments.
Co-author of the study, Professor Jim Denham, said the early stages of pancreatic cancer often presented with no symptoms.
"Meaning that by the time the diagnosis is made, it can be too late," he said.
"The encouraging element of this outcome is that we have various types of drugs which may be applicable. We already have antibodies to block function in certain proteins - these blocking antibodies could be used to target sortilin and inhibit cancer cell multiplication, to compliment chemotherapy and radiotherapy."
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer deaths in Australia, with the five-year survival rate at just 10.7 per cent. Surgery is the most common treatment for early-stage pancreatic cancer, but can be performed in fewer than 20 per cent of patients.