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New pancreatic cancer model to aid research

Image with caption: Mark Carlson, M.D.

Mark Carlson, M.D.

UNMC has one of the world's best pancreatic cancer research programs. UNMC's team is a roster of research all-stars, including UNMC Scientist Laureates Tony Hollingsworth, Ph.D., and Surinder Batra, Ph.D.

But one reason so many great minds are working so hard is that pancreatic cancer needs breakthroughs in the worst way. While we are seeing progress in fighting many other cancers, pancreatic cancer has remained resistant to investigational attempts to control it. Thus, it has remained one of the most lethal cancers.

"We seem to be stalled," said Mark Carlson, M.D.

And so Dr. Carlson, a surgeon-scientist who has a dual appointment at UNMC and the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, is hoping to give his colleagues a better research tool to study pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Carlson is working on the development of a porcine, or pig, model of pancreatic cancer. His team recently won $1.7 million for the project from the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute.

A pig much more closely resembles humans in size, physiology, and DNA sequence, compared to the current go-to animal for modeling pancreatic cancer. A pig model will allow investigators to study potential diagnostic technologies and image-guided surgery. "That's hard to do in a 20-gram mouse," Dr. Carlson said.

He believes the NIH was impressed not only with his idea, but also with the strength of the team at UNMC. The team of nine investigators includes Dr. Hollingsworth, professor and director of pancreatic cancer research; Aaron Mohs, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutical science; and UNMC experts in bioinformatics, imaging, and pathology.

That's also why Dr. Carlson decided to develop a porcine model for pancreatic cancer first -- even though he believes the pig would be an excellent platform for modeling any number of other cancers.

"I picked pancreatic cancer because of the exceptionally strong effort in pancreatic cancer research here on the UNMC campus," he said.

If successful, he plans to apply the idea to breast, esophagus, lung and colon/rectal cancers.

He hopes the new model will help scientists at UNMC and elsewhere make progress against pancreatic cancer.

As a scientific community, "We seem to have hit a brick wall," with pancreatic cancer, Dr. Carlson said. "This model is intended to try to get past that."

Project collaborators

Joining Dr. Carlson, principal investigator, are:
  • Tony Hollingsworth, Ph.D., co-investigator, director, UNMC Pancreatic SPORE, to assist with vector construction, gene editing and analysis;
  • Aaron Mohs, Ph.D., co-investigator, biomedical engineer, UNMC Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, to develop fluorescence image-guided surgery reagents and fluorescence image-guided surgery system;
  • Channabasavaiah Gurumurthy, M.V.S.C. (D.V.M.), Ph.D., co-investigator, director, UNMC Genome Engineering Core, for CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing;
  • Yutong Liu, Ph.D., co-investigator, director, UNMC Bioimaging Core, for radiographic evaluation and to analyze and grade MRI data;
  • Audrey J. Lazenby, M.D., co-investigator, director of anatomic pathology, for PC histopathology expertise and to analyze and grade immunohistochemical data;
  • James Eudy, Ph.D., co-investigator, director, UNMC DNA Microarray and Sequencing Core, to exome sequencing of tumor and germline tissue;
  • Babu Guda, Ph.D., co-investigator, director, UNMC Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Core, for bioinformatics analysis of exome sequence data;
  • Robin High, co-investigator, statistical coordinator, UNMC College of Public Health, for experimental design and statistical analyses;
  • Kelsey Klute, M.D., consultant, UNMC medical oncologist, for expertise with PC management, experimental design and clinical correlation.

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