Pancreatic cancer research at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center (UWCCC) is getting a big boost, thanks to a $3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.

The five-year grant will use sophisticated imaging technologies to observe and measure changes in individual cancer cells, allowing researchers to see how the cells respond to different therapies. They eventually expect to use these techniques to improve patient responses to treatments.

“We’re developing a new system using optical imaging techniques to predict treatment response in pancreatic cancer, based on tissue taken directly from patients and grown as three-dimensional ‘organoids’ in the lab,” said Dr. Melissa Skala, investigator at the Morgridge Institute for Research and UWCCC. “And because we’re looking at single cells, it allows us to see how both cancerous and non-cancerous cells in the sample respond to treatments.”

Pancreatic cancer has the worst prognosis of all cancers, with only seven percent of patients alive five years after first diagnosis. Chemotherapy given after surgery to reduce the tumor burden can help improve survival rates; however, there are currently no effective methods to determine which chemotherapy will work best for an individual patient. Consequently, some patients experience more side effects than benefits.

“With the techniques we develop from this grant, we can test a bunch of drugs relatively quickly, say in a week, before the patient is actually treated, so that they can avoid toxicities from chemotherapies that are not effective,” Skala said.

Skala will work with UWCCC members Dr. Dusty DemingDr. Kristina Matkowskyj and Dr. Sharon Weber, and UW School of Pharmacy professor Dr. Lingjun Li, to obtain pancreatic cancer samples, grow the organoids in the lab and measure drug distribution in them. She credits a UWCCC pilot grant, awarded through the Center’s Pancreas Cancer Task Force, for helping her to successfully apply for this grant.

“We’ve been thinking about this problem for years, but we were just not ready for a big grant yet. We needed another piece,” Skala said. “That pilot grant allowed us to collect critical data, so we could successfully compete for this larger grant from the National Cancer Institute.”