Scientists create first ever 3-D “pancreas in a dish” Microscopic 3-D model will allow researchers to see how pancreatic cancer develops

25 July 2012

Toronto -

Scientists in Toronto have created a tiny, living 3-D organ model of pancreatic ducts to help them conduct research on pancreatic cancer – one of the deadliest and least understood of all cancers. This innovative 3-D organ model could lead to new ways to detect and treat pancreatic cancer, which has a very poor survival rate with only about 6% of patients surviving five years after diagnosis.

Pancreatic cancer patients have a poor prognosis because the cancer causes few symptoms until it’s in a late, untreatable stage. It is also particularly aggressive, spreading more quickly than many other types of cancer. Scientists know very little about what causes it and it remains one of the least funded and studied cancers.

With a $200,000 Innovation Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, Dr Senthil Muthuswamy will use the 3-D biological model he created to unravel the mystery of how pancreatic cancer begins to develop deep within the organ’s duct system. Using thousands of the tiny 3-D models in petri dishes in his lab, Dr Muthuswamy and his team at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital will use genetic manipulation to recreate the events that lead to cancer formation in the pancreas. The researchers will add genes, hormones, and other agents to see what causes the cells to mutate into cancerous lesions. In patients, unfortunately, these lesions progress very quickly to late stage pancreatic cancer.

“In most biological cancer research, we grow and study cells in a flat layer, like a lawn, in a petri dish,” says Dr Muthuswamy. “But cells don’t exist in our bodies like that. They exist as 3-D tubes and vessels, so if you study them in a flat layer, you will not be able to ask all the right questions. These models are much more realistic, much closer to what actually happens in our bodies.”

Dr Muthuswamy and his team will use the 3-D models to observe the different stages of disease. He hopes this will lead to identification of new biological markers to detect and diagnose pancreatic cancer early (similar to the way high cholesterol points to a higher risk of heart disease).

“We’re very excited about this powerful discovery because it’s going to set the stage for identifying new biomarkers and treatments for pancreatic cancer,” says Dr Muthuswamy. “It really takes us to a new dimension.”

Dr Mary Argent-Katwala, Director of Research at the Canadian Cancer Society says, “There is a huge need for more research because pancreatic cancer is one of the most understudied and deadly cancers.” “We are eager to be funding Dr Muthuswamy’s work, which will provide valuable information on understanding how pancreatic cancer develops so it can be diagnosed earlier and treated more effectively. Moreover, this exciting new model will help researchers around the globe in their work on pancreatic cancer.”

In 2012, an estimated 4,600 Canadians will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and 4,300 will die of the disease.

The Innovation Grants

The Canadian Cancer Society today announced 28 new innovation grants. This is the Canadian Cancer Society’s second round of innovation grant funding. The goal of this new program is to support unconventional concepts, approaches or methodologies to address problems in cancer research.

All 28 new projects include elements of creativity, curiosity, investigation, exploration and opportunity. The projects were ranked according to their potential for “high reward” – to significantly impact our understanding of cancer and generate new approaches to combat the disease by introducing novel ideas into use or practice.

As competition for grant funding increases worldwide, peer review panels have become more conservative and risk-averse, emphasizing feasibility more than innovation. It is hoped this grant program will accelerate the introduction of innovation into the entire cancer research system and contribute to the scientific idea pipeline. Grant budgets may be up to $100,000 per year and a maximum of $200,000 per grant. Funding is provided to support the direct costs of research, including supplies, salaries, and equipment associated with the proposed work.

Other projects funded under the Innovation Grants program include:

Microbubbles and heat

Dr Gregory Czarnota, Sunnybrook Hospital, $200,000 over three years

Heating (hyperthermia) has been used as an add‑on to standard radiation therapy, but it has yet to be used as a stand‑alone option for treatment. Dr Czarnota is studying the effects of using hyperthermia along with microscopic bubbles and ultrasound – both of which should enhance the heating effects on the tumour – as a treatment option that would be less invasive and more effective for cancer patients.

Histamines to fight cancer
Dr Jean Marshall, Dalhousie University, $184,448 over three years

While drugs that block histamine and its ability to trigger the immune response are widely used for helping minimize the side effects of cancer treatments, the body’s natural immune response is also thought to be an important player in the fight against cancer. Dr Marshall’s study will take an unconventional approach and look at how histamine can play a positive role in regulating the body’s ability to fight tumours, potentially impacting the way doctors manage many types of cancers.

Lung cancer breathalyzer
Drs Haishan Zeng and Stephen Lam, BC Cancer Research Centre, $183,688 over three years

Early detection and treatment of lung cancer increases the 5-year survival rate of the disease to greater than 90%. Drs Zeng and Lam are developing a new biochemical-based breath test for

lung cancer screening that will make detection easier and more accessible to health care providers and patients. The test uses a novel, light-based detection system that is fast and inexpensive.

Chemotherapy and hearing loss
Dr Francois Meyer, CHUQ – Laval University Medical Research Centre, $145,774 over three years

Cisplatin is a drug used for treatment of both childhood and adult cancers, however one of the common side effects of the drug is a loss of hearing. Dr Meyer is the first to conduct a clinical trial with 30 patients using a safe and natural antioxidant called sodium thiosulphate to study its ability to prevent hearing loss in patients being treated with cisplatin.

Cancer-killing viruses

Dr Jean-Simon Diallo, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute , $200,000 over 3 years
Dr Robert Korneluk, Children`s Hospital of Eastern Ontario
, $200,000 over 3 years
Dr J. Andrea McCart, Toronto Hospital
, $200,000 over 3 years

Viruses can be engineered to specifically target cancer cells, leaving healthy cells intact. Drs Diallo, Korneluk and McCart are all taking a unique approach in harnessing the power of viruses to kill cancer cells. Each project involves improving the use of viruses so that they can one day be used in the clinic to treat cancer patients.

The Canadian Cancer Society is a national community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.