05:41am Tuesday 22 October 2019

UNMC researchers to study role of tumor microenvironment in pancreatic cancer

$4.2 million grant will study why it is so lethal and try to develop better therapeutics 

With the recent deaths of Apple founder Steve Jobs and Nobel Prize winner Ralph Steinman, M.D., pancreatic cancer is once again on the public’s radar screen.

People want to know — can anything be done to halt this lethal form of cancer?

That’s the question researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center will try to address through a $4.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, one of the divisions of the National Institutes of Health.

“Our ultimate goal is to determine what makes pancreatic cancer so lethal,” said Surinder Batra, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the UNMC Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the principal investigator on the five-year grant. “We want to develop new therapeutics that work on pancreas cancer, because the drugs currently being used are not working.”

Pancreatic cancer is arguably one of the most lethal cancers. Annually, more than 44,000 Americans discover they have pancreatic cancer. In 2011, more than 37,600 people are expected to die from pancreatic cancer. More than 95 percent will die within a few years of diagnosis. In the United States, pancreatic cancer is the ninth or 10th most commonly diagnosed cancer (depending on gender), but the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women.

There are no screening tools for pancreatic cancer and the location of the pancreas, deep in the abdomen, hinders early diagnosis. Too often, diagnosis occurs after the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

Dr. Batra’s research team will study animal models and human pancreas tissue. The human tissue is provided by UNMC’s Rapid Autopsy Program, which allows scientists to study the cancer tissue acquired shortly after the death of a pancreatic cancer victim.

“We will look at the role of the tumor micro-environment of cancer cells,” Dr. Batra said. “We will try to figure out what makes these cells so aggressive, so resistant. We will study the pancreas, which is loaded with insulin, and try to determine if this environment is what makes pancreatic cancer so hostile.”

Dr. Batra said it is becoming increasingly evident that the microenvironment of the pancreas is critical.

“Rather than serving as an inert scaffold for tumor cells, the microenvironment of the pancreas appears to be an active and possibly equal ‘partner-in-crime’ in the transformation of normal cells into cancer cells,” Dr. Batra said. “The objective of this grant is to understand how this nexus between the microenvironment and tumor cells operates during both early and late stages of tumor formation.”

Three other UNMC investigators will serve as project leaders along with Dr. Batra. They include: Tony Hollingsworth, Ph.D., professor, Eppley Cancer Institute; Rakesh Singh, Ph.D., professor, pathology and microbiology; and Keith Johnson, Ph.D., professor, College of Dentistry.

Other key investigators for the research projects include: Kay-Uwe Wagner, Ph.D., professor, Eppley Cancer Institute; Maneesh Jain, Ph.D., assistant professor, biochemistry and molecular biology; Pankaj Singh, Ph.D., research assistant professor, Eppley Cancer Institute; Aaron Sasson, M.D., associate professor, surgery; Jane Meza, Ph.D., professor, College of Public Health; San Ming Wang, M.D., associate professor, genetics, cell biology and anatomy; Audrey Lazenby, M.D., professor, pathology and microbiology. professor, Eppley Cancer Institute.

Dr. Batra said UNMC has established itself as one of the leading institutions in the country in studying pancreatic cancer with unique resources and more than $25 million in overall research funding through several NIH grants.

In 2008, the National Cancer Institute awarded a $5.3 million, five-year Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant to UNMC to study pancreatic cancer. In 2010, Drs. Hollingsworth and Batra received a five-year renewal of their $3.3 million grant through the NCI-initiated Early Diagnosis Research Network.

In 2010, UNMC’s Simon Sherman, Ph.D., professor, Eppley Cancer Institute, received a $1.6 million NIH grant to create the Pancreatic Cancer Collaborative Registry, the largest, most comprehensive data source on pancreatic cancer patients in the world. 

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at unmc.edu.

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