Pancreatic cancer is a notorious killer. Associated with a one-year survival rate that is dismally low and a five-year survival rate of less than 10 percent, a positive diagnosis of this condition is often a death sentence. While researchers are well aware of several factors that combine to make this form of cancer so very deadly, an understanding of why it tends to be so aggressive has been largely elusive. A new study sheds light on a possible causation.

The study in question found that pancreatic cancer tumors active a factor known as Zeb1. This factor controls how cells survive in their early stages of development. When cells are fully developed, Zeb1 is typically blocked. If the factor is reactivated in cancer cells, however, it allows these malignant cells to quickly disseminate throughout the body, essentially paving the way for secondary tumor formation.

The full implications of the finding aren’t clear yet, but researchers hope the discovery of the Zeb1 factor in pancreatic cancer may lead to more effective treatment strategies down the road. If this factor’s activation can be reversed or blocked entirely, the aggressiveness of tumors might be an addressable factor.

Pancreatic cancer is expected to strike more than 53,000 Americans this year. More than 40,000 people will die from this cause. With very few, if any, symptoms at its onset and no screening tool available for widespread use, this form of cancer is often diagnosed in later stage. This makes it very difficult to treat, as evidence by the low survival rate. People who are at risk for this form of cancer are urged to report any unusual symptoms to their healthcare providers. Risk factors include new-onset diabetes, obesity, family history, smoking and chronic pancreatitis, among others. People who are concerned about their risks for pancreatic cancer are urged to talk to their doctors. Addressing the risks that can be changed is highly advised.