TORONTO - Canadian scientists have created a living 3-D "pancreas-in-a-dish" with the hope of unravelling the mysteries of pancreatic cancer, one of the least understood and deadliest of all malignancies.
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:
The beloved star of "Ghost" and "Dirty Dancing" died after a battle with pancreatic cancer in September 2009, at the age of 57. "Now, a lot of things go through your head when you get a death sentence handed to you, starting with: 'Why me?'" he said in an audiobook titled <a href="http://www.people.com/people/package/article/0,,20290371_20308571,00.html" target="_hplink">"Time of My Life," People.com reported</a>. And though he blamed himself at first for the January 2008 diagnosis, he soon emerged with a new attitude. "I was not ready to go, and I'd be damned if this disease was going to take me before I was good and ready," <a href="http://www.people.com/people/package/article/0,,20290371_20308571,00.html" target="_hplink">he said in the tapes</a>. "So I said to my doctor, 'Show me where the enemy is and I'll fight him.'" In fact, he told Barbara Walters in 2009 that he was both optimistic and realistic. "I'd say five years is pretty wishful thinking," he said in the interview, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/14/patrick-swayze-dead_n_286559.html" target="_hplink">according to a HuffPost report at the time of his death</a>. "Two years seems likely if you're going to believe statistics. I want to last until they find a cure, which means I'd better get a fire under it." In February 2009 <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/06/AR2009020602850.html" target="_hplink">he wrote an op-ed for <em>The Washington Post</em></a> as a plea to Congress to "vote for the maximum funding to let the National Institutes of Health fight cancer and other life threatening illnesses" as part of the stimulus package: <blockquote>When I was growing up in Texas, my family had a simple response for challenges like this: "Stop talking about it, and <em>do</em> something about it." That's how I feel about finding more money for cancer research. My hope is that some day, the words "a cure" won't be followed by the words "is impossible."</blockquote> He died 20 months after diagnosis. His wife, Lisa Niemi, has stayed active in raising awareness around pancreatic cancer, <a href="http://www.pancan.org/section_about/national_spokesperson/" target="_hplink">signing on as a national spokesperson for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network</a>. "My husband Patrick not only touched the lives of millions with his work, but also with the strength and courage he displayed during his fight against pancreatic cancer; he was a hero around the world," <a href="http://www.pancan.org/section_about/national_spokesperson/" target="_hplink">she said when announcing a new awareness campaign for the organization</a>. "While it is bittersweet to mark this day, it is imperative that people understand the severity of this disease and the urgent need for increased research funding,"
A <a href="http://www.thelastlecture.com/aboutr.htm" target="_hplink">professor of Computer Science, Human Computer Interaction and Design</a> at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pausch delivered his last lecture in September 2007 after learning he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Soon, the speech, titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," became a viral sensation, with a <a href="http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Lecture-Randy-Pausch/dp/1401323251 http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Lecture-Randy-Pausch/dp/1401323251 http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Lecture-Randy-Pausch/dp/1401323251 http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Lecture-Randy-Pausch/dp/1401323251" target="_hplink">follow-up book released</a>, as well. "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand," he said during the lecture, which he later explained was <em>really</em> for his three kids. (Watch the full video to the left). He died 11 months later on July 25, 2008 -- <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/07/26/randy-pausch-last-lecture_n_115137.html" target="_hplink">five months past the six months his doctors</a> once (optimistically) gave him to live.
The founder and CEO of Apple may be the most public face of pancreatic cancer in the United States, having battled the disease for an estimated seven years before succumbing to it at the age of 56. For the rare form of pancreatic tumor that Jobs suffered from, a neuroendocrine pancreatic tumor, his survival was not unusual. Jobs was famously tight-lipped about the condition and his treatment protocol, though he did get a liver transplant in 2009, following surgery in 2004 to remove the tumor from his pancreas. As the<a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203476804576613722391627248.html" target="_hplink"> <em>Wall Street Journal</em> reported</a> at the time of Jobs' death, patients usually undergo tumor removal either if the cancer is contained to the pancreas and has not spread -- or if it has spread to the liver. "If you think it is confined to the pancreas, there is quite a good hope that the patient has gotten rid of it once and for all," Michaela Banck, a pancreatic cancer expert at the Mayo Clinic told the <em>Journal</em>, adding that in cases where it has spread to the liver, "you can't ultimately cure it. The more tumor you remove, you buy time for the patient." Though Jobs rarely spoke of his illness, he shared his thoughts on death with some frequency, including during a 2005 Stanford <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/steve-jobs-death-20-best-quotes/story?id=14681795#5" target="_hplink">commencement speech</a>: <blockquote>No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.</blockquote>
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
In truth, it may have been Chief Justice Ginsburg's 1999 brush with colon cancer that saved her. Because she is a cancer survivor, Ginsburg gets routine CT scans as part of her yearly examinations. And in 2009, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/health/08brod.html" target="_hplink">one of these scans turned up a small tumor on her pancreas</a>. Unlike most pancreatic cancer patients, Ginsburg was lucky to find the cancer early and, as of this writing, remains cancer free following surgery to remove her spleen and part of her pancreas in 2009.
In July 2006, Pavarotti's manager announced that the famous opera singer had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent surgery for the removal of a malignant mass, <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/07/AR2006070700319.html" target="_hplink">the <em>Washington Post</em> reported at the time</a>. "Fortunately, the mass was able to be completely removed at surgery," the manager said in a statement, according to <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/07/AR2006070700319.html" target="_hplink">the <em>Post</em> report</a>. "Mr. Pavarotti is recovering well, and his physicians are encouraged by the physical and emotional resilience of their patient." He eventually died in his Northern Italy home in September 2007, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/06/arts/music/06pavarotti.html?pagewanted=all" target="_hplink"><em>The New York Times</em> reported</a>.
The violin player and vaudeville, radio, TV and movie star Jack Benny (pictured here with Marilyn Monroe) died from pancreatic cancer on December 26, 1974, <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000912/bio" target="_hplink">according to IMDB.com</a>.
The actress first gained prominence for her award-winning role in <em>From Here to Eternity</em>, though she was perhaps better known for her television roles in "The Donna Reed Show" and "Dynasty." Reed was <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/1986-01-14/news/mn-27829_1_donna-reed" target="_hplink">first admitted to the hospital</a> with bleeding ulcers, but screening tests revealed that she was suffering from a tumor in her pancreas. She died of the cancer within six weeks of diagnosis.
The country music star <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2011-01-26/entertainment/obit.louvin_1_charlie-louvin-great-atomic-power-ira?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ" target="_hplink">died in January 2011 of pancreatic cancer</a> at the age of 83. Louvin, a Grammy nominee and Country Music Hall of Famer, was diagnosed with stage 2 of the disease in 2010 after visiting his doctor with, <a href="http://blogs.tennessean.com/tunein/2010/07/07/happy-birthday-charlie-louvin/" target="_hplink">what <em>The Tennessean</em> reported was a "minor complaint."</a> He performed all the way up until the December before his death -- at one of those last appearances, <a href="http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20460856,00.html" target="_hplink">People.com reported that he said</a>: "In my world, you are worthless if you can't continue. Show business is all I really know how to do. I would like for that to be the last thing I do."
Gazzara, a long-time dramatic actor, died in early 2012 from pancreatic cancer, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/04/movies/ben-gazzara-actor-of-stage-and-screen-dies-at-81.html" target="_hplink"><em>The New York Times</em> reported at the time</a>.
<a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123128087267758759.html" target="_hplink">According to friend Nat Hentoff</a>, as the jazz great Dizzie Gillespie lay dying of pancreatic cancer at New Jersey's Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, he made his doctors promise to help ailing musicians who were less fortunate than he was. That turned into the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund and the Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Institute at Englewood -- an ongoing legacy that doesn't just help those with pancreatic cancer, but any musician who lacks health insurance or resources to help treat an illness.
The actor probably best known as the patriarch on the 1960s television series "The Munsters," Gwynne died from pancreatic cancer at age 66, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/1993-07-03/news/mn-9469_1_fred-gwynne" target="_hplink">the <em>Los Angeles Times</em> reported at the time</a>. While his other roles included the television series "Car 54 Where Are You" and the play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," he always had a soft spot in his heart for Herman. "And I might as well tell you the truth. I love old Herman Munster. Much as I try not to, I can't stop liking that fellow," <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/1993-07-03/news/mn-9469_1_fred-gwynne" target="_hplink">the <em>LA Times</em> quotes him as saying</a>. Gwynne acted for 42 years, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1993/07/03/obituaries/fred-gwynne-popular-actor-is-dead-at-66.html" target="_hplink">according to <em>The New York Times</em></a>, and also once worked as both a writer and illustrator of children's books and as an advertising copywriter.
Movie star Joan Crawford <a href="http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/06/health/conditions/pancreatic-cancer-steve-jobs/index.html" target="_hplink">suffered from pancreatic cancer</a> at the time of her death at age 72 in 1977, though the actual cause of death was <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0323.html">listed as a heart attack</a>.
Landon was famous for his roles in period Western dramas, like" "Bonanza" and "Little House on the Prairie," but the actor was also well-known for his battle with pancreatic cancer. In an interview with <em>LIFE</em> magazine three weeks after diagnosis, <a href="http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20115519,00.html" target="_hplink">he famously said</a>: "If I'm gonna die, death's gonna have to do a lot of fighting to get me." Despite chemotherapy, rest, an all-vegetarian diet and a course of vitamins and supplements, Landon died of the cancer at age 54 at his house in Malibu.
William "Count" Basie was a famous bandleader and jazz musician who is considered responsible for much of the "Big Band" sound of the 1930s and 1940s. <a href="http://projects.latimes.com/hollywood/star-walk/count-basie/" target="_hplink">He died of pancreatic cancer</a> in 1984 at the age of 79.
Dr. Sally Ride, the first woman to travel into space, passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 61 on July 23, 2012. Ride lived 17 months beyond diagnosis and left behind an organization dedicated to science education for girls. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
The next step is to try to induce cancer in the ball-like cluster of cells, with the goal of shedding light on the causes of the disease and ultimately coming up with potential treatments.
"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."