In conditions of pancreatitis (which can lead to pancreatic cancer) the enzymes, produced by the pancreas and needed for food digestion, become excessive and digest the pancreas itself. Alcohol abuse, or gallstone complications, can cause excessive calcium signals, triggering the secretion of digestive enzymes inside the organ. Petersen’s team are finding a way to reduce these calcium signals. Petersen explains, ‘a calcium-binding protein called calmodulin is present in all cells, so when the calcium concentrate goes up, this protein gets activated. It’s a normal protective function, but when the calmodulin protein is missing the calcium signals increase.’
Their thinking is that if they can activate the calmodulin protein, it would provide a protective mechanism. In the lab they have found a tiny calcium-like peptide that can pass through cell membranes, activating calmodulin to reduce the secretion signals. This is potentially a way of curing an acute attack of pancreatitis. A major part of their research funding is to take this work further and understand fully how the calcium peptide works.