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Development of PET imaging techniques for the detection of pancreatic cancer and to guide treatment choice

Recipient: Dr Bart Cornelissen

Host Institution: University of Oxford

Title: Development of PET imaging techniques for the detection of pancreatic cancer and to guide treatment choice

Type of award: 2016 Research Innovation Fund

Funding: £74,345

Pancreatic cancer is a devastating disease. Only one in every twenty pancreatic cancer patients will survive past five years from their diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at a very late stage, when it can no longer be treated successfully with surgery, and it is often resistant to chemotherapy treatment. We therefore desperately need better ways of detecting pancreatic cancer earlier, and also need to develop tools that allow doctors to decide the most appropriate treatment for pancreatic cancer patients, maximising their chances of survival.

In order to do this, we need to have molecular information about the biology of pancreatic cancer. Biopsies can give us a wealth of information, where a small piece of tissue is removed from suspected tumour sites and studied using microscopy or genetic techniques. However, tissue biopsies cannot be repeatedly collected, are invasive, and cannot always be reliably obtained. Additionally, biopsies only sample a small amount of tissue from a single site of the tumour, but the disease has often spread throughout the body. New methods of obtaining information about the tumour are therefore needed.

One of the key events during the development and growth of pancreatic cancer is a change in a protein called p53. In around 75% of patients with pancreatic cancer, p53 is abnormal and abundant, leading to uncontrolled cancer cell multiplication and tumour growth. Pancreatic cancers with abnormal p53 are also particularly resistant to treatments such as chemo- and radiotherapy.This project aims to develop a method of detecting p53 in patients with pancreatic cancer. Dr Cornelissen’s team will do this by developing a new imaging agent that can be detected with a PET scanner. Imaging agents are chemicals designed to allow doctors to visualise the function of specific organs or cells in the body. PET scanning is already in widespread use for imaging various forms of cancer.

It is hoped that if the researchers are able to pick up p53 and how abundant it is in the body, they may be able to detect pancreatic cancer earlier, and also determine whether it will be particularly resistant to treatment. This would enable doctors to rapidly move patients forward for treatment, improving chances of survival.The difference this research could make: This is a promising area of investigation through which the researchers could develop a safe, non-invasive and effective tool that could be used in a clinical setting. This could improve early diagnosis and early detection of recurrence in pancreatic cancer patients. Furthermore, this would enable doctors to decide the most appropriate treatment for pancreatic cancer patients maximising their chances of survival.