The Pancreas: Cancer Studies & Tissue Slices

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“Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek recently made an announcement to update all fans on his pancreatic cancer diagnosis. He tells us, “The one-year survival rate for stage 4 pancreatic cancer is 18%. I’m very happy to report I have just reached that marker.”

Pancreatic tissue slices: Alex Trebek quote on his pancreatic cancer

While pancreatic cancer accounts for just 3% of all cancers in the United States, it is an incredibly lethal form of disease. One of the reasons this type of cancer is so deadly is because it is often diagnosed at a late stage; early stage pancreatic cancer is usually asymptomatic. This week, we would like to focus on pancreas research, and share the latest tissue slice research on this key organ.

Pancreas Research

The pancreas is a digestive system organ that secretes hormones and enzymes to help digestion. One of the vital hormones it secretes is insulin, which allows cells to utilize sugar in the blood as energy. Pancreas research is crucial to help us better understand diseases like diabetes, pancreatic cancer, and pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).

Pancreatic tissue slices: Common diseases of pancreas

Creating Pancreatic Tissue Slices to Study

How do scientists study the pancreas in a laboratory? Conventional methods for studying pancreatic cancer mostly used cell lines and xenograft-based animal models. While these methods could capture some of the features of human pancreatic cancer in vivo, there are several limitations. These include lack of a tumor microenvironment, and the average rate of successful translation from animal models to clinical cancer trials was less than 8%.

Precision-cut pancreatic tissue slices were developed as a way to culture tissue from human pancreas for ex vivo testing. A 2019 study led by Dr. Caroline Verbeke at the University of Oslo collected fresh pancreatic tumor samples surgically resected from patients, and cultured the precision-cut tissue slices for further analyses.

Pancreatic tissue slices 2019 study led diagram

Precision-cut pancreatic tissue slices allow for preservation of pancreatic cancer tissue in its entirety, including the tumor cell population and the native microenvironment. What are the next steps using these tissue slices? Structure and function studies of excised tissue slices will help us better understand how pancreatic cancer grows. Another avenue is to use tissue sections to test new drugs that are developed to treat pancreatic cancer. For making live pancreas slices, vibrating microtomes can be successfully used to cut slices that are 150µm-800µm thick for cultures.

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