Nearly 44,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, according to the American Cancer Society. More than three-fourths of patients die within one year of diagnosis. Currently, pancreatic cancer is seldom found before it has spread to other organs. Symptoms usually do not appear until the disease is in its late stages.

Imagine a handheld device that could reveal pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages—quickly and from just a few drops of a patient’s blood. A team of physicians and scientists from Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and the Nano Institute of Utah are working together to create such a test—using nanotechnology.

spider web

A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. For comparison, a strand of a spider’s cobweb is about one-one millionth of a meter (5,000 times larger).

HCI’s nanotechnology research is part of a nationwide hunt for the group of proteins and other biomarkers that best identify the presence of pancreatic cancer. Biomarkers are like the fingerprints of cancer. When high levels of a certain marker are found in a patient's blood sample, it may indicate cancer is present. No single marker works very well, and recent genetic sequencing studies have shown that every patient’s cancer is slightly different.

“We’re having good initial success with finding the characteristics that account for the differences in patients and their tumors,” says Sean Mulvihill, MD, co-principal investigator of the studies. “So far, nine useful markers have been thoroughly studied, and we’re systematically examining 200 more that may prove useful. The panel will need 30 to 40 markers to give the 99-plus percent level of accuracy needed.”

As HCI investigators develop the signature panel, researchers at the Nano Institute are working on the hardware and software that will capture, hold, and measure the pancreatic cancer biomarkers from a patient’s blood sample.

Image of two guys

Two National Cancer Institute grants funded these studies, headed by co-principal investigators Sean Mulvihill, MD (left), and Marc D. Porter, PhD.
Mulvihill is HCI’s Senior Director of Clinical Affairs and Professor and Chair of Surgery at the University of Utah. Porter is Director of the Nano Institute of Utah and
the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) Professor of Chemistry,
Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Pathology.

“We’re building a nanotechnology-based mousetrap,” says Marc D. Porter, PhD, co-principal investigator. Nanotechnology researchers work to build systems on a molecular scale. Using particles of gold that measure about one to 100 nanometers (one-billionth of a meter), researchers attach receptors that will attract and hold the different biomarkers of pancreatic cancer. This technology can detect extremely low concentrations of the biomarkers, which may make it possible to find cancers in their early stages.

“Our mantra is ‘reliable results for real-time decisions,’” says Porter. “We want to develop a test that will accurately show, within 30 minutes, whether or not pancreatic cancer is present.”

The pancreas, a gland that
makes insulin and digestive juices,
lies deep within the abdomen.

With this test as part of regular screening, people with a family history of pancreatic cancer and others with a high risk could find out whether they have cancer before the disease is too far advanced for effective treatment. The work being done to identify the pancreas cancer markers will also provide important information about the variations in each patient’s cancer profile. “Eventually, we’ll be able to run a quick test that will tell us which treatment will work best for each patient,” Mulvihill says.

Two HCI technology resources are essential to this research. Research Informatics, headed by Samir Courdy, developed the Clinical Cancer Research Database (CCRD) for researchers to use. This database holds information on pancreatic cancer patients, the treatment they received, outcomes, and availability of blood, tissue, and tumor samples. The CCRD is structured to give researchers open access to information they need while maintaining legal and ethical requirements of protected health information. The Tissue Resource and Applications Core (TRAC) collects, stores, tracks, processes, and distributes more than 30,000 human tissue biospecimens along with linked clinical and pathological information.

“These studies are a great example of using interdisciplinary collaborations and shared resources to produce leading-edge research to improve patient care,” says Mulvihill.

USTAR, created by the Utah legislature in 2006, is a long-term investment by the state of Utah to fund world-class innovation teams and research facilities at the University of Utah and Utah State University. Its goal is to create new technologies that will be commercialized in new business ventures.