Can new technology deliver a pancreatic cancer breakthrough?

Dr Katia Nones

18 August 2022

A new QIMR Berghofer-led study will use cutting-edge technology to hopefully unlock some of the mysteries surrounding one of Australia’s deadliest and most painful cancers.

Lead researcher Dr Katia Nones hopes the project will advance researchers’ understanding of pancreatic cancer, and help pave the way for new and improved treatments.

The research team comprised of experts from QIMR Berghofer, Griffith University’s Central Facility for Genomics, and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research’s Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative will be among the first in the world to use spatial transcriptomics technology to study a common but yet not fully understood feature of pancreatic cancer in unparalleled detail.

“Pancreatic cancer is a really diverse collection of diseases with tumours presenting different genomic characteristics, making it a difficult cancer to treat,” Dr Nones said.

“However, approximately 80 per cent of pancreatic cancer cases have at least one thing in common – the patient’s cancer cells invade pancreatic nerves. This nerve invasion is associated with cancer spread and contributes to the high levels of pain experienced by patients, but we still don’t fully understand how it happens.

“This study will tap into a new technology to examine this process of nerve invasion by cancer cells with a microscopic level of detail not previously possible. We hope that by improving our understanding of nerve invasion it could lead to better treatment and better management of the terrible pain caused by pancreatic cancer.

“Spatial transcriptomics technology offers a detailed picture into the tumour microenvironment. We can now study gene expression of a particular group of cells in their tissue location which will hopefully identify novel interactions between cancer and nerve cells – this specific view was not possible with previous technologies.”

The study has been funded by a collaborative grant from PanKind, The Australian Pancreatic Cancer Foundation and Tour de Cure.

“We are delighted to have the support from PanKind and Tour de Cure and trust of their generous donors. We are extremely grateful they have made this study possible,” Dr Nones said.

Pancreatic cancer was the third leading cause of cancer deaths in Australia in 2021, with more than 4,200 Australians diagnosed and 3,391 dying from the disease, according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates.

PanKind CEO, Michelle Stewart said: “we are pleased to collaborate with Tour de Cure to fund this important project led by Dr Nones. Understanding how to improve pain management for pancreatic cancer patients during treatment is critical to improving their quality of life.”

The new research will see Professor Anthony Gill from the Garvan Institute provide appropriate tissue samples for study, while Dr Nicholas West from Griffith University will perform spatial transciptomics lab experiments.

Dr Nones and Dr Ann-Marie Patch from QIMR Berghofer will then be tasked with analysing the data. QIMR Berghofer researcher Professor Glen Boyle will test whether any genes identified as being involved in nerve invasion can be altered in the laboratory to confirm their effect in nerve invasion. Results are expected by 2024.


Jodie Stephens
T +617 3362 0280
M +614 2717 9216