Mapping pancreatic cancer biology to drug responses

Using new methods to help personalize treatment for patients with pancreatic cancer

Every year, an estimated 6,000 people in Canada are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, an aggressive cancer with a five-year net-survival rate of only 10 per cent. For Dr. Robert Grant, an oncologist and cancer researcher at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, this is unacceptable.

“We urgently need to find better treatments for pancreatic cancer,” says Dr. Grant, who sees patients with this cancer daily. “It’s clear to me that we need to approach this from a totally new angle, and find options for patients beyond chemotherapy.”

With new funding from the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network, Dr. Grant is hoping to do just that. As a recipient of the MOHCCN’s inaugural Clinician-Scientist Award, Dr. Grant will receive $225,000 over the next three years (to be matched by the PMCC for a total of $450,000) that he will use to create new techniques to improve treatments for patients diagnosed with this cancer.

“Our hope is that by the end of this project, we’ll have new treatments for pancreatic cancer targeted to specific biological differences in patients while also creating new data and algorithms that could help yield new treatments for other cancers,” says Dr. Grant.

Using new methods to personalize treatments

Using samples from pancreatic cancer patients being treated through two MOHCCN-supported clinical trials, Dr. Grant and his colleagues will create thousands of patient-derived organoids, which are essentially living models of cancers taken from patients and grown in a lab.

They will then use high-throughput screening to see how these organoids respond to approximately 3,000 different drugs. This drug-screening platform will allow them to create a robust dataset that matches the genomic and transcriptomic landscape of each individual tumour with a response to each drug. This large dataset will then be analyzed through a machine-learning algorithm, creating a program that can essentially predict how a pancreatic cancer will respond to one of these 3,000 drugs based on the cancer’s particular biology.

A network approach to curing cancers

In addition to new funding for his lab, the MOHCCN’s Clinician-Scientist Award will give Dr. Grant access to a national network of cancer centres that is sharing data, resources and expertise like never before. Thanks to the Network, Dr. Grant will have access to more samples to create and test his model, which can then be validated and used by other researchers across the country.

“Joining the network is really a win-win situation,” he says. “On the one hand, the more data we have, the more powerful our mappings will be, and on other, the more powerful these mappings are, the more they can help other researchers in the network looking at other cancers.” 

“When dealing with a topic as complex as cancer, innovation and collaboration are the only way to make meaningful impacts that can change the lives of our patients,” says Dr. Grant. “Our ultimate goal is to unveil new targeted treatments for pancreatic cancer and develop tests that can match patients to the right treatments to save more lives.”