Experts celebrate 'rare moment' of pancreatic cancer breakthrough
A breakthrough in pancreatic cancer research has been made thanks to revolutionary 3D technology.
The technique, developed by the Francis Crick Institute in London, involves tissues samples being studied in 3D models and has revealed that pancreatic cancer can start and grow in two distinct ways.
The results could make it possible to improve treatment and save lives, researchers say.
Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat.
While survival prospects for many other cancers have increased, there has been little improvement in pancreatic cancer for decades: less than seven percent of people diagnosed will survive beyond five years.
It is known for taking the lives of Apple founder Steve Jobs and actors Alan Rickman and Patrick Swayze.
The breakthrough was made as a result of collaboration between two research groups at the Crick, led by Dr Axel Behrens and Dr Guillaume Salbreux.
Dr Behrens explained that cancer pathologists have been studying two dimensional slices of tumours showing abnormal shapes for decades without finding a logical explanation for their appearance.
The 3D imaging has helped provide an explanation, with the team defining two distinct types of cancer formation: one that grows outwards and one that grows inwards, into the ducts of the pancreas. The two are also biologically different.
Dr Behrens said: "Our study revealed that pancreatic cancers have fundamental shapes that are different. You can now understand what people have been seeing in two dimensions for decades.
"Now that we know pancreatic cancer can develop in these two different ways, we can start looking at whether one is likely to be more aggressive or spread in a different way.
"Many years from now, this could lead to improved diagnostic or treatment options."
One development could be personalising treatment for patients depending on which tumour they have.
Dr Behrens said: "You get standard chemotherapy. Some patients actually respond quite well and some don't.
"The question is why and how can we understand beforehand who will respond to chemotherapy and who won't."
Professor Andrew Biankin, Cancer Research UK's pancreatic cancer expert, praised the study, deeming it a "technological breakthrough" that has the potential to "unlock many unanswered questions of great importance in how we understand and treat pancreatic cancer".
Chris Macdonald, head of research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: "For too long we have been unable to understand even the basic way pancreatic cancer tumours develop and grow.
"This study is one of those rare moments where multiple avenues of new investigation are opened."
Dr Behrens said that such research would not have been possible without public donations to Cancer Research UK.
The research was supported by the European Research Council and core funding from Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and Wellcome.
Dr Behrens said: "There is high quality work being done in the UK, but this relies on the continued support of the public.
"During these times of austerity and Brexit it cannot drop down in priority."