A tiny, living 3-D organ model of pancreatic ducts has been created by researchers in Toronto to help them understand pancreatic cancer, which is one of the deadliest yet least understood of all cancers. This new model could lead to the discovery of new ways to detect and treat pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer unfortunately has a very low survival rate with only about 6% of patients surviving 5 years after their diagnosis. This year in Canada, an estimated 4,600 people will be diagnosed with this type of cancer and 4,300 will die from of it. Since this type of cancer causes very few symptoms until it is in a stage too late for treatment, patients have a poor prognosis. This cancer is also more aggressive and fast-spreading than any other type. Very little is known about what causes this cancer but it is still, shockingly, one of the least studied of all the cancers.

Dr. Senthil Muthuswamy will use the 3-D biological model that he created to study how pancreatic cancer starts to develop deep within the organ’s duct system, with help from the generous funding from the Canadian Cancer Society. The research team will use genetic manipulation to recreate the events that lead to pancreatic cancer by using thousands of the tiny 3-D models in petri dishes in the lab. In order to see what causes the cells to mutate into cancerous lesions, the team will add hormones, genes, and other agents. However, these lesions develop in patients very quickly to late stage pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Muthuswamy explained:

“In most biological cancer research, we grow and study cells in a flat layer, like a lawn, in a petri dish. 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.”

In order to closely examine the different stages of the disease, Dr. Muthuswamy and colleagues will use these 3-D models. He is hoping his research will lead to the recognition of new biological markers to be able to identify and diagnose pancreatic cancer early on (similar to how high cholesterol points to an increased risk of heart disease).

Dr. Muthuswamy explained how this powerful discovery takes them to a new dimension because it will be able to set the stage for identifying new biomarkers and ways to treat pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Mary Argent-Katwala, Director of Research at the Canadian Cancer Society revealed:

“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.”

Written by Sarah Glynn