Australian study to use new technology in bid to improve understanding of pancreatic cancer

Australian researchers will use new cutting-edge technology to investigate how pancreatic cancer spreads and causes the severe pain experienced by patients.

Key points:

  • New cutting-edge technology will be used to study how pancreatic cancer spreads and causes pain
  • Researchers are aiming to examine how cancer cells invade pancreatic nerves
  • Pancreatic cancer was the third leading cause of cancer deaths in Australia in 2021

The researchers from QIMR Berghofer, Griffith University and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research will be among the first in the world to use spatial transcriptomics technology to study how cancer cells invade nerves in the pancreas and interact with immune cells, in a bid to better understand how the cancer spreads and causes pain.

Pancreatic cancer was estimated to become the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in Australia in 2021, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2019

Lead researcher Katia Nones says pancreatic cancer is a diverse collection of diseases with tumours presenting different genomic characteristics.

She hopes the project will advance researchers’ understanding of pancreatic cancer and help contribute to new and better treatments.

“The pancreas has really diverse types of cells, they do a lot of different types of jobs, and the cancer is so diverse too,” she said.

“So for us to study these in detail was really hard because the technology did not allow us to just look at those particular cells.

“However, approximately 80 per cent of pancreatic cancer cases have at least one thing in common – the patient’s cancer cells invade pancreatic nerves.

“This nerve invasion is associated with cancer spread and contributes to the high levels of pain experienced by patients, but we still don’t fully understand how it happens.”

The researchers will use the new technology to examine how the cancer cells invade the nerves, with the aim of improving understanding that process and leading to better treatment.

“We can now study gene expression of a particular group of cells in their tissue location which will hopefully identify novel interactions between cancer and nerve cells — this specific view was not possible with previous technologies,” Dr Nones said.

“With this new technology…we can really mark in the tissue, and really look at the micro environment of these tumours.

“So, mark tumour cells, mark nerve cells and really collect the information of only those cells and we are hoping that this will allow us to dissect what is causing this invasion.

“We don’t know what we are going to get until we look, so it’s just a more focused look on this particular problem.”

The study involves Dr Nicholas West from Griffith University’s Central Facility for Genomics, conducting lab experiments on donated pancreatic cancer patient tissue samples provided by Professor Anthony Gill from the Garvan Institute’s Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative.

QIMR Berghofer’s Dr Nones and Dr Ann-Marie Patch will analyse the data, with Professor Glen Boyle to test whether any genes involved in the nerve invasion can be altered to confirm their effect.

This research article was originally published by ABC News. ACRF has been backing Garvan since 2003, providing over $15 million in funding to enable cutting edge research programs. ACRF has also backed $7.05 million of brilliant research at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, and $6.6 million at Griffith University.