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. The 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 per cent of patients surviving five years after diagnosis.
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 hopes that by observing the different stages of disease, his team will be able to identify 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.”