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Research Highlight | August 16, 2023

Researchers develop imaging method to study pancreatic cancers and their surrounding environment in real time

A Toronto-based research team partially funded through a Terry Fox New Investigator Award to Dr. Ralph DaCosta has developed an innovative imaging platform that can monitor pancreatic tumours over prolonged periods in real time in experimental models of human pancreatic cancers. 

The technique is shedding new light on the tissues and blood vessels that surround pancreatic tumours – a region known as the tumour microenvironment. This tumour microenvironment is characterized by low oxygen (called hypoxia) and excessive fibrous or connective tissue that can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of anticancer treatments. 

“While understanding the microenvironment is key to developing better ways to treat the disease, studying it has been a challenge. This is due to its complexity and the fact that the composition of the microenvironment is constantly changing as tumour cells grow and spread into nearby tissues, all the while modifying the environment in which they are growing,” says Dr. DaCosta, a senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre who led the research team. 

To address this, the researchers developed a method called quantitative intravital microscopy, a type of imaging that enables researchers to visualize pancreatic tumour progression, measure oxygen levels within tumour cells and observe changes in the supportive tissues and blood vessels surrounding the tumour.                                                                                                      

Using fluorescence-based probes, the team tracked cell oxygen levels in the tumour and in surrounding tissues over time for several weeks in an experimental model. Their findings revealed spatial variations in the structure and function of blood vessels within the tumour microenvironment and in oxygen levels within tumours. 

“Understanding the interplay between oxygen levels in tumour cells and those of the nearby microenvironment is crucial for developing effective treatment strategies—especially when oxygen levels fall and the tissues become hypoxic,” explains Dr. DaCosta. “Our novel imaging platform provides valuable insights into the dynamic nature of hypoxia within the pancreatic tumour microenvironment, offering potential targets for therapeutic interventions.” 

While further research is needed to fully understand the complexities of the pancreatic tumour microenvironment, this study represents a significant step forward in unraveling the mysteries surrounding pancreatic cancer and provides hope for the development of more effective treatment options.               

Adapted from a University Health Network press release.                

Timothy Samuel, Sara Rapic, Cristiana O’Brien, Michael Edson, Yuan Zhong and Dr. Ralph S. DaCosta