A team led by Senthil Muthuswamy, a senior scientist at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, developed a microscopic model of a pancreatic duct, one of the tubes that carry insulin and other substances through the organ, and the site where most tumours tend to arise.
"In most biological cancer research, we grow and study cells in a flat layer, like a lawn, in a Petri dish," explained Muthuswamy. "But cells don't exist in our bodies like that. They exist as 3-D tubes and vessels, so if you study them in a flat layer, you will not be able to ask all the right questions. These models are much more realistic, much closer to what actually happens in our bodies."
SEE: Famous people who have suffered from pancreatic cancer. Story continues below:
"Pancreatic cancer is really deadly," Muthuswamy said Tuesday, noting that by the time symptoms arise, the cancer has often spread beyond the insulin-producing organ and is virtually untreatable.
The disease, which led to the deaths of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and actor Patrick Swayze in recent years, has a dismal survival rate: just six per cent of patients diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas are still alive five years later.
The Canadian Cancer Society, which has awarded Muthuswamy a two-year, $200,000 grant to fund his innovative research, estimates there will be 4,600 new cases of pancreatic cancer in 2012, and 4,300 people will die of the disease by year's end.
"It's a devastating disease and has a terrible prognosis," said Christine Williams, the society's vice-president of research.
"This is one of those cancers that we don't understand enough about, and frankly we haven't made enough progress on, compared to some other cancers," she said.
More than 90 per cent of pancreatic tumours are found to contain the same mutated gene, but it's not clear what role that gene might play in the development of the cancer.
"We don't really know exactly how the cancer is initiated by this oncogene and what happens over the period of time for the initial event to the cancer formation," Muthuswamy said.
One of the experiments his team will perform is seeing if adding this gene to the pancreas-in-a-dish will produce a cancerous model that can then be studied.
"Once you model the disease, the opportunities are endless," he said.
The malignant balls of cells — thousands upon thousands of them can be produced in the lab — could be used to screen for potential cancer-killing drugs.
The researchers also want to see if such a tumour produces different enzymes or other substances; if so, one or more could form the basis for a diagnostic test, which could be administered long before symptoms arise and spread has occurred.
"So it is a long fishing expedition," Muthuswamy said. "And I don't want to raise any hopes saying that we're going to find something, because it is really a challenging question to answer. But there is clear potential to really do that down the road."
Indeed, research utilizing a 3-D model of breast-duct tissue produced in the lab in 2001 by a team that involved Muthuswamy has helped scientists better understand the biology of breast cancer that arises in the milk ducts.
Neville Reed said any research into pancreatic cancer is welcome news.
Reed, 73, of Ottawa is an all-too-rare survivor of the disease. In 2004, suffering from intense stomach and back pain, he was diagnosed with a fist-sized tumour in his pancreas.
Although surgeons had to remove his spleen, part of his stomach and two-thirds of his pancreas, he was among the lucky few — the cancer hadn't spread. The then 66-year-old went from resignation that he would soon die to being "elated."
But Reed knows how grim the survival statistics are for the disease. As a peer-support volunteer for the Canadian Cancer Society, he has counselled 55 people with pancreatic cancer over the last six years.
Only three or four are still alive.
He said there is far less funding for research into pancreatic cancer than for other types of cancer.
"I think the reason for that is the survivors are often the driving force for things like fundraising and supporting research into various types of cancer.
"And pancreatic cancer, unfortunately, does not have the same base of survivors available. So I think this is one of the reasons why we haven't seen a lot of research."
Funding for Muthuswamy's research is one of 28 new innovation grants to be announced Wednesday by the Canadian Cancer Society. The grants support creative research concepts that the society says could "significantly impact our understanding of cancer and generate new approaches to combat the disease by introducing novel ideas into use or practice."