UF Health surgeons’ pancreatic cancer research garners competitive university award

JTrevinoJose Trevino, M.D., a UF Health surgical oncologist and an assistant professor in the department of surgery’s division of general surgery; and Chen Liu, M.D., Ph.D., associate chair of the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine and a professor in the department, have won a University of Florida Research Opportunity Award to support their research to improve experimental models in pancreatic cancer.

Dan Delitto, M.D., a third-year surgical resident, plays a major role in the project. He is extending his two-year period of dedicated research required for UF surgical residents to four years to complete a Ph.D. degree. Delitto’s participation is currently funded through a National Institutes of Health T32 grant awarded to Kevin Behrns, M.D., chairman of the department of surgery. This type of training grant supports clinical trainees performing research.

The UF Research Opportunity Award will provide $84,000 over two years to support the team’s research. They received the award after a rigorous, four-round review process which eliminated hundreds of applications from UF research teams.

Fifteen other teams also received 2014 Research Opportunity Awards, including three others headed by UF College of Medicine investigators.
The research by Trevino, Liu and Delitto focuses on more fully recreating the cellular microenvironment in which pancreatic cancer cells grow. This environment influences the way tumors behave in a human, which is not mimicked when the cells alone are grown in culture, as is commonly done.

“Pancreatic cancer is associated with not only tumor cells, but a whole host of other cells that provide an environment from which it grows,” Trevino said. “We believe that this microenvironment is actually one of the more important components in pancreatic cancer. The communication between the cancer cells and the environment may determine how it grows, metastasizes and invades other areas of the body, which ultimately results in the death of our patients.”

Research studies that exclude the surrounding cellular microenvironment can lead to the development of therapies that may work in the lab, but are not very helpful for patients.

“You find these great drugs that we administer to a pancreatic cancer cell line in a tissue culture dish and in some cases you can cure the cancer in that environment,” Trevino explained. “But, when you translate it to a patient, it doesn’t always fare out as well as we hope.”

Trevino, Liu and Delitto say an established technique that involves removing intact pancreatic tumor specimens, ones that include the pancreatic cancer cells and non-cancerous cells that surround the tumor (stroma) leads to more relevant research results. Growing the tumor cells and the stroma all together in a research animal more accurately reproduces the scenario of cancer growing inside the human body. UF researchers have not previously been successful in establishing this protocol for pancreatic cancer, Trevino said.

Using the award money, the team will study this method on a larger scale, analyzing the tumors to identify the individual cells and proteins that may help them grow. They also will test potential therapies, and develop novel, individualized therapies to improve clinical outcomes following pancreatic cancer resection. Shannon Wallet, Ph.D., an associate professor in the College of Dentistry’s department of periodontology, will collaborate with the team in an effort to identify novel molecular targets on pancreatic cancer cells that are specific for individual patients. Such collaborations will ultimately lead to personalized therapies for pancreatic cancer, Trevino said.

Liu will try to obtain cancer stem cells from the tumor segments, which would help the researchers further recreate the tumors’ original growing environments.

Trevino and Delitto expressed great enthusiasm about their research, as well as their selection to receive the award.

“It was a great honor to receive this award, because we had gone through so much and through so many reviewers, and we were selected to receive the award,” Trevino said. “We feel very privileged by that, and appreciate the support from the University.”