Integrating cancer genetics and immunology to design precision therapies for pancreatic cancer
Light blue digital illustration of DNA strand

Integrating cancer genetics and immunology to design precision therapies for pancreatic cancer

Researcher: Riley Arseneau
Institution: Dalhousie University
Mentors: Dr. Jeanette Boudreau
Consortium: ACC
Program: MOHCCN Health Informatics & Data Science Awards


Pancreatic cancer has a poor survival rate and little time for treatment after diagnosis. We need more effective treatments and a way to quickly decide what the best approach to treatment is for each patient. Genetic mutations are what allow a tumour to grow, and the immune system is one way that it can be eliminated. My research focuses on exploring how the genetics of a pancreatic tumour affect how immune cells enter and interact with the tumour. In particular, I am focusing on a type of immune cell called the natural killer (NK) cell. We and others have already shown that NK cells are important in solid tumours and that NK cells can kill pancreatic cancer cells. For these reasons, we think that NK cells will be an ideal cell to use for therapy, but first, we need to understand how they work (or not) in each patient.

NK cells kill tumour cells when the tumour cell shows signs of DNA damage or stress, and NK cells can sense many tumour features. Already, we know that some of the features of a tumour that make it interesting to an NK cell can be predicted by its genetic mutations. If we can understand how this works, we think that we can develop precise pancreatic cancer treatments that target or use NK cells. To do this, we are studying the genetics of pancreatic cancer alongside the NK cells in patients with pancreatic cancer.

I am working with an established team of clinicians and scientists to study the genetics and NK cell activity in a group of patients with pancreatic cancer from Nova Scotia. For the first time here, we will understand how pancreatic cancer is driven by genetic changes by using the data collected in the Marathon of Hope Gold Cohort alongside additional genetic and immunologic analysis in our laboratory. With microscopy analysis, I will look at how NK cells interact with the tumour and other immune cells to define features that contribute to or take away from good outcomes, and compare how NK cell responses differ between patients based on the genetics of their tumours. Next, when I transfer to become a PhD student, I will test these ideas by challenging different NK cells to kill pancreatic tumours.


"I am thrilled to have been awarded the 2023 MOHCCN Health Informatics and Data Science Award, which will support our research on pancreatic cancer! With the backing provided by this award, we can dive deeper into understanding the link between tumour genetics and the immune response in pancreatic cancer. We expect this project will not only advance our understanding of pancreatic cancer but also guide future research for developing precision therapies for this deadly disease.” -Riley Arseneau, HI&DS Award recipient

"Riley’s work is groundbreaking. For the first time EVER, we are looking at the genetic sequences of pancreatic cancer in Atlantic Canada. Right away, this will help us to better understand how to approach patient treatment more precisely.  Riley’s work to link genetic and immune features will unlock new possibilities for immunotherapy of this devastating disease, by showing us how the immune system engages with, and fails in response to pancreatic cancer.” - Dr. Jeanette Boudreau, mentor