Combating Direct Tumor Cell Communication in Pancreatic Cancer

Images of isolated pancreatic cells.
On the left, pancreatic cancer cells in isolation, on the right, a pancreatic cancer-derived tumor in a mouse.

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., and is in need of better novel targeted treatments. A new study on pancreatic cancer mechanisms is underway with pilot funding from The Prouty, Norris Cotton Cancer Center’s largest annual community fundraiser. Henry Higgs, PhD, Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine and his team of researchers are looking to address the question concerning how pancreatic cancer cells communicate with each other and with other cells to evade treatment. “Our hypothesis is that pancreatic cancer cells extend tubule-like protrusions, through which they can exchange biological materials (see image above). This direct cell-to-cell communication helps the cells resist treatment,” explains Higgs. The team is using microscopy approaches, both on the isolated cells and on pancreatic cancer tumors themselves.

“Our research will identify completely new targets for pancreatic cancer treatment by attacking the communication mechanisms between tumor cells,” says Higgs. “We also hope to be able to identify the degree of direct cell-to-cell communication for individual pancreatic cancer patients, allowing more personalized treatment.” Once a better understanding of tumor cell communication is achieved, the team will look to identify the specific molecules responsible for direct pancreatic cell-to-cell communication. This identification will not only help with the development of targeted treatments against these molecules, but will allow molecular diagnosis of the degree of cell-to-cell communication for individual pancreatic cancer patients. Disrupting communication networks between pancreatic cancer cells presents a promising new approach to treatment.