Australia’s first pancreatic ‘organoids bank’ to take guesswork out of cancer treatment

16 November 2016
Professor Tony Burgess
Professor Tony Burgess is working towards the establishment
of a pancreatic cancer ‘organoids bank’ to take the guesswork
out of treatment.
Studies to improve the survival of people with pancreatic cancer will receive a boost with the creation of Australia’s first pancreatic cancer ‘organoids bank’.

Five research teams from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, in partnership with the University of Melbourne, are establishing the ‘bank’, which aims to reduce the time it takes to find the right treatment for patients from months to weeks.

The key to this project will be organoids — mini pancreatic organs the size of a grain of sand — which will be bombarded with up to 15 drugs already used for pancreatic cancer and drugs currently used to treat other cancers.

Professor Tony Burgess, head of the Burgess laboratory in the Structural Biology division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, is jointly leading the bank and said the use of organoids would be a significant change from current drug testing techniques, which can take eight months to yield results that are unreliable.

“We expect organoids to give us answers on an individual patient’s drug sensitivity and resistance in 10 days,” Professor Burgess said.

“Combine that with information on each patient’s genetic mutations, and we expect this will give doctors real answers inside three weeks.”

The University of Melbourne Bertalli Chair in Cancer Medicine Professor Sean Grimmond said clinicians had limited time to decide on treatment, as the average pancreatic cancer patient survives only three to six months after diagnosis. 

“When that first round of chemo fails, we’re up against the clock and the timeframes are ruthless,” Professor Grimmond said.

“The end game is to take the guesswork out of chemotherapy, with a clinical test that will assess dozens of drugs and drug combinations against tumour samples from each patient.”

The project will be housed at the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC) in 2017. While it is still early days as far as patients are concerned, researchers are hoping to reach the first trial phase of the project in 2018.

This accelerated effort, announced on World Pancreatic Cancer Day, has been made possible by a $916,000 grant from the Avner Pancreatic Cancer Foundation. It is funding Australian research to the tune of $2 million this year, in a bid to double survival rates by 2020. Only seven per cent of patients are alive five years after being diagnosed, and only one per cent at 10 years.

CEO and Co-Founder of the Avner Pancreatic Cancer Foundation Caroline Kelly said the Avner Foundation is thrilled to award this grant to such a ground-breaking team.

“Our priority is to keep working to fund further research into this low profile but devastating cancer and increase survival rates,” she said.

The funding is part of the Believe campaign for the University of Melbourne. It is the largest ever fundraising commitment for an Australian public institution, aiming to raise $1 billion by 2021, and has health and wellbeing as a core focus.

The Institute would also like to recognise the leadership of Jane Hemstritch, who in 2015 committed a $1 million gift in memory of her husband Philip to advance pancreatic cancer research. The Philip Hemstritch Pancreatic Research Program provided the impetus for this additional support from the Avner Foundation. These gifts exemplify the impact of philanthropic support for under-funded research.

For patient information or support: 

Call the Cancer Council 13 11 20 to speak confidentially to a trained health professional, or visit the Cancer Council website.

For media and Institute research enquiries:

Arunee Wilson
Media and Publications Advisor
P: +61 3 9345 2719
M: +61 475 751 811
E: wilson.a@wehi.edu.au

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