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IUPUI research team makes major strides in early detection of pancreatic cancer

A team of IUPUI researchers is at the forefront of new ways to detect pancreatic cancer.

INDIANAPOLIS — More than 64,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year. About 50,500 Americans will die from it.

That's according to the latest predictions from the American Cancer Society.

"Pancreatic cancer is becoming more and more prevalent in our society," said Dr. Max Schmidt, director of surgical services at the Indiana University Health Adult Academic Health Center.

To combat the increasing number of diagnosis and deaths, a team of researchers at IUPUI has developed a new way to detect one of the world's deadliest cancers.

"Pancreatic cancer is very tricky to treat," said Nayela Chowdhury, a fourth year Ph.D. candidate at IUPUI in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. "Most of the patients that are diagnosed are diagnosed in the later stages of the cancer."

Later stages are considered stage 3 and 4. 

"How can we see early clues and get a patient to surgery before it becomes a cancer, or right as it becomes a cancer?" said IUPUI alumna and project contributor Dr. Adrianna Scheller. 

Using plates that can screen 384 samples at once, scientists tracked certain biomarkers in the cells, like MicroRNA-10b. That is a gene that increases as pancreatic cancer worsens.

"It is just a simple plate that has 384 wells," Scheller said. "Each well is very small. You can fill about 120 microliters inside each well."

After more than two-and-a-half years of research, Associate Professor Dr. Rajesh Sardar says his team made a few major discoveries.

"This will be outstanding in moving forward for clinical diagnostics to detect pancreatic cancer in the early stage," Sardar said.

The research team was, first, able to detect and monitor certain MicroRNA that can be used for early detection of pancreatic cancer.

"We were able to look at these different levels and differentiate the different stages of cancer. So stages 1 and 2 versus stages 3 and 4," Scheller said. 

Next, Scheller said the biomarker used in this research is not being used in this capacity in any other research lab. Lastly, the ability to test 384 samples at once is groundbreaking.

"There are other 384-well plates out there that currently exist, but none that are an actual biosensor platform like this," Scheller said.

Additionally, Sardar said another discovery is that one biomarker is not always enough to detect pancreatic cancer in early stages.

"As we always know, two is better than one," said Sardar.

The team at IUPUI believes its discoveries will provide hope for future pancreatic cancer patients.

"So the idea is, if we catch them early, we can treat the patients better and improve their overall outcome," Chowdhury said. 

Dr. Melissa Fishel with the IU School of Medicine also contributed to the project.

"Hope," said Fishel. "That is what we're working toward."

The next step for these discoveries, according to researchers, is to move the tests into clinics.

However, scientists first want to lessen the analysis time.

"We have to reduce the time frame so we can analyze those samples in maybe an hour time," Sardar said. 

Currently, the analysis time is about five or six hours for more than 300 samples. Additionally, Sardar's team wants to be able to test more samples simultaneously. Instead of the current 384 samples, the goal is to test up to 500 at once.

"This cancer has no cure. At least, we want to move forward and do something, early-stage detection, so that people have a long survival and long life," Sardar said. 

For Scheller, this project was her Ph.D. research during her time at IUPUI.

"It was very exciting," said Scheller. "It led me to my future career. I know I wanted to do something in the diagnostic world, and that's what led me to my position now."

Scheller currently works at PTS Diagnostics in Whitestown.

Sardar says this research would not be possible without the collaboration at the university.

"I think they are an incredible team. I am very proud of the team," Sardar said. 

Also on the list of contributors is Dr. Michele Yip-Schneider. She has worked with Schmidt in the field of pancreatic cancer since 2000.

"It's been a great team," said Yip-Schneider. "I've enjoyed working with Rajesh and Melissa and Dr. Schmidt. I think all of us have different areas of expertise and all came together."

Fishel thanks the IU Cancer Center for assistance with gathering samples and the pancreatic cancer patients who are willing to donate.

"They are getting a very scary diagnosis and they are still willing to donate. My team takes that very seriously," Fishel said. 

The research team also thanks the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health for their support in the research. 

"Whenever you see science come together and have synergy like that. That's really exciting, and I think you move the field forward," Fishel said.

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