Purpose: Advanced pancreatic cancer is a highly refractory disease almost always associated with survival of little more than a year. New interventions based on novel targets are needed. We aim to identify new genetic determinants of overall survival (OS) in patients after treatment with gemcitabine using genome-wide screens of germline DNA. We aim also to support these findings with in vitro functional analysis.
Patients and methods: Genome-wide screens of germline DNA in two independent cohorts of pancreatic cancer patients (from the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB) 80303 and the Mayo Clinic) were used to select new genes associated with OS. The vitamin D receptor gene (VDR) was selected, and the interactions of genetic variation in VDR with circulating vitamin D levels and gemcitabine treatment were evaluated. Functional effects of common VDR variants were also evaluated in experimental assays in human cell lines.
Results: The rs2853564 variant in VDR was associated with OS in patients from both the Mayo Clinic (HR 0.81, 95% CI 0.70-0.94, p = 0.0059) and CALGB 80303 (HR 0.74, 0.63-0.87, p = 0.0002). rs2853564 interacted with high pre-treatment levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D, a measure of endogenous vitamin D) (p = 0.0079 for interaction) and with gemcitabine treatment (p = 0.024 for interaction) to confer increased OS. rs2853564 increased transcriptional activity in luciferase assays and reduced the binding of the IRF4 transcription factor.
Conclusion: Our findings propose VDR as a novel determinant of survival in advanced pancreatic cancer patients. Common functional variation in this gene might interact with endogenous vitamin D and gemcitabine treatment to determine improved patient survival. These results support evidence for a modulatory role of the vitamin D pathway for the survival of advanced pancreatic cancer patients.