Nebraskans may be aware that the University of Nebraska Medical Center is nationally known as a pancreatic cancer research center.
But they may not know much about two behind-the-scenes programs at the university that are contributing to the fight against what’s arguably one of the most deadly forms of cancer.
One is a rapid autopsy program that has created one of the world’s largest repositories of pancreatic cancer tissue, which is shared with researchers here and across the country.
The second is a screening program for people considered at somewhat increased risk of developing the disease, aimed at finding ways to detect the cancer at earlier stages. Pancreatic cancer is notorious for presenting when it’s already advanced, often after it’s already spread.
The Nebraska Legislature is considering a measure, Legislative Bill 669, that would put $15 million from the state’s health care cash fund toward further bolstering pancreatic cancer research at UNMC. The university would have to raise $15 million in matching funds from donors before receiving the state monies. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee is expected to present its budget proposal to the full body on Thursday.
Michael “Tony” Hollingsworth, a professor and pancreatic-disease scientist at UNMC, said the autopsy program is important because it provides tissue that researchers need to study the disease.
The UNMC program collects samples from the original tumor and any place that it has spread, as well as from blood and unaffected tissue. The collection allows researchers to test on human tissue the discoveries that they make in the laboratory.
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“We really have shared it very widely because our program is unique in the material it captures,” Hollingsworth said.
The latest example of such collaboration is a paper published last month in the journal Nature. The UNMC program provided researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, with specimens from donors who’d received no treatment — no chemotherapy, no radiation.
Hollingsworth said the samples UNMC provided validated the study, confirming that a protein, called LIF, is made in cells in human tumors and is involved in signaling that helps protect tumors.
Blocking the signal could provide a target for therapies. The study also suggests that the protein could be used as a biomarker for earlier detection of the disease or for monitoring its response to treatment.
Hollingsworth said the program, which started in 2002, also has provided materials and services for a number of other projects in recent years. Among the institutions seeking tissue from UNMC are MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University, Columbia University and Weill Cornell in New York City.
Paul Grandgenett, the program’s director, said the program wouldn’t be possible without dedicated volunteers or generous donors and families. The team, roughly 40 volunteers, must be able to report within an hour or two of a patient’s death, any time of day or night, Grandgenett said. So far, the team has conducted 127 autopsies.
“We really try to honor the patients every day by doing quality work providing tissues to every group that can make a difference,” he said.
UNMC also is at various stages of developing rapid autopsy programs for prostate cancer, lymphoma and colon cancer, Grandgenett said, with progress in that order. The ultimate goal would be to develop a multidisease tumor donation program.
“As much as we’ve been able to help with pancreatic cancer around the world, we’d like to be able to contribute equally or more in some of the other diseases as well,” he said.
For the early detection screening program, Hollingsworth said, UNMC has been following patients at somewhat elevated risk of pancreatic cancer. That includes collecting blood samples and taking enhanced medical histories that might help identify signs and symptoms that may be evident in early disease.
While there is no screening for pancreatic cancer, UNMC researchers hope the research could someday lead to a screen for clinical and blood markers. UNMC is among multiple institutions participating in the Pancreatic Cancer Detection Consortium created by the National Cancer Institute.