Case Study

Targeting cancer-associated pain: understanding how pancreatic tumours invade into and activate nerves.

The majority of pancreatic cancers will invade into the nerves that innervate the tissue. This causes significant morbidity in the form of cancer-associated pain and is indicative of poor prognosis. Despite this, the biological mechanisms that control how pancreatic tumours invade into the nerves and elicit pain responses are largely understudied. My group seeks to investigate the relationship between tumours and nerves and identify therapeutic targets to block this interaction. To achieve this, we bring together expertise in cancer biology, neuroscience, and pharmacology.

We have developed a 3D multi-cellular in vitro model to study tumour-nerve interactions. We first construct mini tumour spheroids by combining cancer cells together with stellate cells, the normal fibroblast-like cell of the pancreas. These are then embedded in extracellular matrix reflective of the pancreatic tumour environment. When surrounded by neurons, these spheres produce stellate-led invasive projections of cancer cells which interweave with the growing nerves. In turn, tumour cells enhance the signalling of nerves. This model presents an excellent tool to study the relationship between tumour cells and nerves and identify critical mechanisms that can be targeted therapeutically.

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