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Miniature pancreases grown in labs will aid research progress

14 January 2015

Scientists at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York have developed miniature, living forms of human pancreases which they believe will revolutionise research efforts into pancreatic cancer.

Called “organoids”, the balls of cells are made out of stem cells derived from donated healthy and cancerous pancreatic tissue. Stem cells can grow into complex tissues under certain laboratory conditions, and using tissue engineering techniques, the researchers were able to make the stem cells grow into 3D structures that are hollow in the centre.

Whilst the organoids do not achieve all the complex cells of an adult human pancreas, the results are a much closer representation of parts of the pancreas – pancreatic ductal cells – that are most commonly affected by cancer than clusters of 2D cells in a laboratory dish.

Led by Professor David Tuveson, formerly from the UK’s Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute, the researchers report that once transplanted into mice, the organoids assume the proper position, shape and function with cancerous tissue advancing through each usual disease stage.

The tiny organoids are easily seen through a microscope and can even be grown to a size where they can be seen by the naked eye. Professor Tuveson said: “When people see them, they remark how shiny they appear and how they look like little balloons in a sea of gelatin. They can be grown to be as large as a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence."

Professor Tuveson’s research is part funded by the Lustgarten Foundation, the US pancreatic cancer research foundation set up in 1998 in memory of Madison Square Garden chairman Marc Lustgarten, who died of pancreatic cancer.

This project was undertaken by Professor Tuveson’s research team in collaboration with the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands and is published in the journal Cell.

One hope for the outcome of the research is to progress personalized medicine approaches for pancreatic cancer. The Cold Spring Harbor team envisage testing different chemotherapeutic drugs organoids grown from patients' own cells, to determine which might work best.

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