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Spread of pancreatic cancer can be detected by a “biosensor mouse”

January 15, 2016

Scientists from Australia and the UK have created a “biosensor mouse”, which enables them to watch pancreatic cancer cells begin to “unzip” from each other in real time. This signals that cells are on the verge of spreading from the primary tumour. Remarkably, the researchers successfully re-zipped these cancer cells by treating mice with anti-cancer therapies, stopping the spread of cancer before it had begun.

This discovery gives hope to those diagnosed early. Currently, five-year survival rates after diagnosis stand at just 6.1% – a figure that has barely changed in the past 40 years.

“Many patients present with pancreatic cancer at a very advanced stage, when the cancer has already spread to other tissues such as the liver,” said Dr Paul Timpson, of Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, who co-led the study with Professor Kurt Anderson of the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, UK. “But sometimes, the cancer is detected before it has spread – and that’s the point where we have an opportunity to intervene and stop the spread of cancer in its tracks.”

Cancer researcher Dr Timpson

Dr Paul Timpson, Garvan Medical Research Institute

“Our biosensor mouse makes it possible to look at a primary tumour that has not yet spread in real time. Using a state-of-the-art laser technology known as FRAP, we can see, at a molecular level, whether the contacts that hold tumour cells in place have started to unzip – and that’s a sign that the cancer is about to spread.”

“Crucially, if we see that cells have already begun to unzip, and we give a drug early enough, we can rezip those cells together – before the cancer starts to spread.”

“The biosensor mouse is a powerful tool for anti-cancer drug discovery,” Dr Timpson said.

Professor Timpson concluded that the discovery makes it possible to evaluate the effect of new therapies on tumour spread, in real time and in a system that reflects human cancer as closely as possible at this point in time.

The study was published recently in the journal Cell Reports.

The original news release with more detailed information was published on the Garvan Institute of Medical Research’s website.

ACRF has supported cancer research at Garvan by providing three major grants, totaling AUD 6.13m.

Images courtesy of Garvan Institute of Medical Research: on the cover a cross section of ‘live’ cancer.

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