Stanford Cancer Institute

SCI Pancreatic Cancer Innovation Awardee

October 2023

Sarah Heilshorn, PhD, director of the Geballe Laboratory for Advanced Materials (GLAM), professor of materials science and engineering, Calvin Kuo, MD, PhD, Maureen Lyles D'Ambrogio Professor, and Christina Curtis, PhD, professor of medicine (oncology) and of genetics, were awarded a $50,000 SCI Pancreatic Cancer Innovation Award for their proposal “Engineering of personalized medicine organoids for pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma.” Heilshorn develops materials for a variety of biomedical applications including, regenerative medicine, organoid cultures, and bioprinting. Kuo uses organoids to model the interaction between cancer cells and their environment, including the effect of immune cells and the response to therapy. Curtis applies computational and systems biology approaches to provide new insights into tumor biology and investigate how tumors progress, metastasize, and develop resistance to therapy.

Whether a tumor grows and spreads and how it responds to therapy depends not only on the molecular characteristics of the tumor itself but also on interactions between the tumor and its cellular environment, including the physical properties of the surrounding tissues. An example is pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), a type of pancreatic cancer that is often resistant to chemotherapy. Heilshorn, Kuo, and Curtis recently found that PDAC tumors grown in a stiffer environment show increased resistance to chemotherapy, suggesting that the mechanical environment around a tumor could determine whether a patient responds to therapy. While previous studies have looked at patient-specific responses to drugs, they have not factored in the mechanical environment. With the support of the SCI Pancreatic Cancer Innovation Award, Heilshorn, Kuo, and Curtis plan to test how mechanical properties affect the response of tumors to different drug regimens. They will first characterize patient-specific tumor tissues and then grow patient cells in 3-dimensional cultures (called cancer organoids) that mimic the mechanical properties of the tissues. These organoids will be used to test which drug regimens are most effective given a specific mechanical environment. The study will establish a foundation for a personalized medicine approach to treating PDAC with the hope of improving treatment outcomes for this deadly disease.