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Early detection of pancreatic cancer by analysing DNA taken from patient blood

Siim Pauklin

Recipient: Dr Siim Pauklin 

Host Institution: Botnar Research Centre at the University of Oxford

Title: Early detection of pancreatic cancer by analysing DNA taken from patient blood

Type of award: 2019 Research Innovation Fund 

Status: Live

Funding: £109,986

Bringing earlier diagnosis to people with pancreatic cancer is one of the most important challenges in pancreatic cancer research and has been for decades. Despite this, we still do not have a clear indicator in the body that can be used to tell us if cancer is present or at what stage it is – a biomarker. This needs to change.

The team at Oxford have proposed a novel approach to identify a biomarker from patients DNA for early stage pancreatic cancer. DNA can be modified by attaching and removing chemicals to turn genes ‘on’ and ‘off’. This is normally a crucial and highly regulated process in development and maintenance of health. In cancer, the way these modifications are made becomes unregulated and drives the basic processes that create cancer. However, they also represent a very effective indicator of early cancer development and as such present an opportunity to develop early diagnostic biomarkers for pancreatic cancer.  

Dr Pauklin will assess how DNA modifications produce so called ‘cancer stem cells’ – one of the first steps in cancer development. Cancer stem cells are very dynamic and can, on their own, form the whole tumour as well as dictate how aggressive the cancer can become, and how resistant it will be to treatment.

The funded research will work to understand: 1) the basic processes in the cancer stem cells that add and remove DNA modifications 2) the profile of these modifications on DNA from cancer stem cells and 3) if this unique modification profile can be detected in the blood.   

A multidisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians working together will deliver this work. They will combine expertise in molecular mechanisms of pancreatic cancer formation with clinical collaborators who will obtain samples from pancreatic cancer patients via the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

60% of people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed at stage 3 and 4, where their hope of treatment, let alone survival, is all but none. A biomarker that is based on the early processes that drive pancreatic cancer development will help deliver early diagnosis to everyone and potentially save more lives. Moreover, understanding more about basic processes in cancer cells could also form a basis for new therapies that stop the development of cancer stem cells altogether.