Pancreatic cancer ‘time machine’ creates new way to test potential treatments

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the disease in humans. One thing that makes it so dangerous is its resistance to chemotherapy. A team at Purdue University says part of the problem is research which focuses on one cancer cell type at a time. Their study introduces their solution to this problem — a cancer “time machine” which looks at the disease’s behavior over time.

“The drug discovery and screening process has been using one cancer cell subtype and studying how it interacts with neighboring non-cancer cells, but this may overestimate the efficacy of the drug,” says Purdue professor of mechanical engineering Bumsoo Han in a university release.

“By condensing time to look at how cancer cells interact within a pancreatic tumor, we found that one cancer cell subtype can not only be more drug-resistant than the others, but drug-sensitive cells can also become resistant through interaction between the subtypes.”

Purdue’s time machine tests potential drugs against several tumor cell types at once. Researchers say this method can reveal how all these cancer cells interact which each other and possibly work together to resist treatments.

How does the ‘time machine’ work?

Cancer time machine
Purdue engineers built a “time machine,” or microfluidic pancreatic tumor device, that simulates tumor growth over time. (Credit: Purdue University/Jared Pike)

Purdue’s invention is a new version of a microfluidic device. These lab tools are slides the size of a stick of gum which can culture cancer cells in channels less than a millimeter in diameter. Researchers then allow the cells to grow in a life-like environment Han’s group created to recreate a pancreatic duct.

The study explains that microfluidic devices are becoming more mainstream in scientific research. They allow researchers to test their potential cancer treatments in a more realistic environment that uses real tissue samples. This is also a faster method time-wise than observing how treatments work on animals. Han’s team adds about one quarter of cancer tumor research conducted in 2019 used microfluidic devices.

The Purdue device can load cell samples from both animals and humans before gene mutations take place. This allows researchers to see the full progression of a tumor’s development.

“Not much research has been done on what kind of interaction happens within tumors, so those mechanisms of drug resistance have been overlooked,” Han says.

Making cancer treatment development easier

The study says this innovative device is already helping to review new cancer treatments. Zhong-Yin Zhang, director of Purdue’s Institute for Drug Discovery, is using the time machine to test a compound which may block the tumor-creating process.

“The nice thing about this device is that we don’t have to use as much of a compound to see how well it works,” Zhang explains.

Overall, pancreatic cancer patients currently have a 10 percent chance of surviving the next five years after their diagnosis, making new treatment options a necessity around the world.

The study appears in Royal Society of Chemistry journal Lab on a Chip.