Jul 19, 2019

Campus’ pancreatic cancer research leads the way

As the average lifespan of Americans increases with each generation, the likelihood of an individual developing cancer, the second leading cause of death in the United States, increases with each passing day.

“It is very likely that cancer will surpass heart disease as the leading cause of deaths in the United States over the next couple of years,” said Dr. Jason Bush, assistant professor of cancer biology at California State University, Fresno.

Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in the United States, with more than one million new cases expected to develop in 2009, but it is not the most deadly.

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, pancreatic cancer, is considered the most deadly form of cancer, with less than five percent of individuals expecting to survive past five years after initial diagnosis.

During the past three years, Bush has been establishing a cancer research laboratory at Fresno State, getting recognition as part of a campus team from the National Institutes of Health, which has recently received an infrastructure grant worth $4.5 million over the course of five years for molecular analyses at CSU Fresno.

His laboratory consists of several projects running simultaneously, with themes such as defining the differences between metastatic bone-seeking and metastatic brain-seeking breast cancer cells, but he has one project dedicated to finding biomarkers for early stages of pancreatic cancer.

Research targets early signs of pancreatic cancer

Since pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed when it has developed into stage-three or stage-four cancer, it has a very high mortality rate.

“It is also a terribly under-funded area of research,” said Bush, which has limited the research needed to find clinical diagnostic techniques for early detection.

Under the leadership of Rowena Chu, a senior graduate student in Bush’s lab and a biology master’s candidate at CSU Fresno, the development over the past two years of secretome analyses (protein signatures secreted by the pancreatic cancer cells) for pancreatic cancer has reached a point where it can progress into its second phase.

Ultimately, Chu and her teammates on the project are trying to analyze and isolate specific soluble proteins and secretions from cultured cancer cells of the pancreas, called ductal cells, to find biomarkers that would indicate the early developments of pancreatic cancer.

In the first phase, Chu and her lab associates have been trying to establish in-vitro pancreactic ductal cell culture lines of acini, which are the glandular portions of the pancreas that secrete enzymes to help dissolve your food within the intestines. Development of this model system has allowed them to isolate specific proteins to determine whether or not they are indicators of pancreatic cancer.

Now that they have established their culture lines, they will be comparing them to primary cells from tumors that have been removed from patients with pancreatic cancer, to compare the secreted protein signatures or ‘secretome’ by the cells from cancer patients.

Once they have established a correlation between their culture line and that of primary cells from tumors of pancreatic cancer patients, they will then compare with that of pancreatic juices released from patients with pancreatic cancer.

The analysis of the pancreatic juices will allow Chu and her associates to develop a method that will allow physicians to test an individual for early pancreatic cancer, after obtaining a sample of the pancreatic juice through a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).

‘Community’ of researchers tireless

“Trying to find a translation from the lab to the clinic,” Bush said, should be the driver when it comes to biomedical research. Without this connection, it is nearly impossible to apply what has been done in the lab to actual practice.

Though the past two years have been exhausting for Chu and her team and the research is long from over, the benefits of the outcome outweigh the numerous nights of little sleep.

“I often feel there should be two of me,” said Chu. “But I always look at the bigger picture and keep in mind what I am here to do, which outweighs any drawbacks to the responsibilities I have in the lab.”

For David Wells, an undergraduate research assistant in Bush’s lab, working in the lab is not a daunting, but rather an environment where everyone is working together for a common goal.

“Everyone in the lab is very inviting,” said Wells, “We each have our own projects, but we are also learning about everyone else’s project at the same time. We work in a little learning community, and try to help each other out when we can.”

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