Toronto researcher Dr. Semthil Muthuswamy has created the first living 3D prototype of the human pancreas, a model he hopes will give insight into an elusive disease that kills all but a fortunate few.
“We have a very limited understanding of the biology” of the cancer, said Muthuswamy, a researcher at Princess Margaret Hospital. “By the time the patient shows symptoms … the cancer has grown a lot and metastasized.”
This year, 4,600 Canadians will receive news that they have pancreatic cancer, and according to the Canadian Cancer Society, 4,300 of them will die of it within five years.
Neville Reed is a rare exception. Eight years after finding out about a fist-sized tumor in his pancreas, the 74-year-old grandfather is completely cancer-free.
“I’m one of the 6 per cent that managed to survive,” he said. “I’m certainly fortunate.”
Muthuswamy hopes the pancreatic duct prototypes he created from stem cells coaxed to perform like the human pancreas will help make Reed’s story more common.
In coming months and years, he and his colleagues will attempt to make the ducts cancerous, in the process hoping to learn about the risk factors and early signs of the disease.
So far, this kind of research was only possible on a flat layer of cells instead of tube structures similar to how the ducts exist in the human organ, said Muthuswamy.
The goal of the research, funded by a $200,000 grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, is to eventually find clues for early detection.
Unlike breast and ovarian cancer, there is no easy way to screen for pancreatic cancer. And because the vast majority of patients don’t survive, few people are around to campaign for more research and funding, said Dr. Mary Argent-Katwala, director of research at the Canadian Cancer Society.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “It has been very challenging to crack the science behind the tumor.”
Reed, now a volunteer peer counselor for people with pancreatic cancer, said only three of the 54 people he has counselled have survived.