Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal forms of cancer. The five-year survival rate is only 11%, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.
The reason pancreatic cancer is so lethal is because of metastasis — the spread from a primary tumor site to different areas, said Denis Wirtz, a Johns Hopkins University chemical and biomolecular engineering professor, vice provost for research and a core researcher at the Institute for NanoBioTechnology.
Patients usually don’t get worrisome symptoms like a stomach ache, fatigue or weight loss until the cancer has spread, usually into the liver. “By the time you actually have symptoms, it is almost always too late,” he said.
What is the process for cancer cells to metastasize? “Very little is known about this,” Wirtz said.
A new collaboration between two of the nation’s most prominent research institutions hopes to change that.
In mid-April, Hopkins announced a partnership with Yale University through a National Cancer Institute grant to create a new center focusing on groundbreaking technology for imaging, studying and developing new treatments for tumors.
Pairing interdisciplinary research and collaboration between oncologists, engineers, pathologists and computer scientists, the Johns Hopkins Center for 3D Multiscale Cancer Imaging looks at tumor formation using cutting edge molecular and cellular analysis.
Wirtz said the team, including center co-founder Laura Wood, will develop computer algorithms combined with advanced molecular tools to identify and map in three dimensions the key cancer cells that cause the disease to spread.
Staff will focus on pancreatic cancer because of its low survival rate and breast cancer due to its potential to spread throughout the body. CODA, a computational research platform, will be used by researchers to turn tissue slides into a 3D model.
This process allows researchers to align, manipulate and examine hundreds of images of ultrathin tissue sections. The process of sectioning tissue has helped scientists to better understand the makeup of plants, humans and other organisms. By slicing tissue at a certain thickness and placing it on a slide, researchers can see exactly how cells are structured at a nano level. CODA can assembly the slides in minutes and creates an algorithm that gives characteristics to every aspect of the tissue per slide including counting the number of individual cells.
For someone with pancreatic cancer, CODA can be used to provide a detailed 3D image of their primary tumor so researchers could see where cells are entering the bloodstream which is how metastasis can start. Sometimes primary tumors can be surgically removed from a patient with success but doctors need to understand that if cells or the part of a tumor that cause the cancer spread remains, the tumor can spread further.
“With CODA’s capabilities, the team will be able to reconstruct the entire tumor and not only determine where the tumor is accessing the blood supply, but also what exactly happens the moment a tumor cell finds that blood vessel and enters it,” said Wirtz.
Wirtz has an entrepreneurial and a clinical hope for the center. “We have intentions to create a company in Baltimore that would create and commercialize CODA for many other researchers beside those at Hopkins to make use of the amazing technological advance provided by CODA,” he said. On the clinical side, he hopes the team learns the principles to develop therapies that can block cancer spread as a majority of cancer deaths come from metastasis.