A Biological 'Time Machine' With Human Cells Can Help Reverse Cancer

Converting cancerous cells 'back into their normal state'.
Brad Bergan
The anatomical structures, within a microscope slide.Purdue University photo / John Underwood

When you can't stop what's coming, sometimes you can start over.

This seems to be the strategy in a new experimental treatment for early-stage pancreatic cancer, which involves a new "time machine" from Purdue University that reverses the progress of cancer before it spreads throughout the organ, according to a new study published in the journal Lab on a Chip.

And, depending on how further studies progress, it could be implemented via gene therapy.

Early-stage pancreatic cancer has a 'reset button'

"These findings open up the possibility of designing a new gene therapy or drug because now we can convert cancerous cells back into their normal state," said Professor Bumsoo Han of Purdue's mechanical engineering, who is also the program leader for the university's Center for Cancer Research, in a blog post shared on the university's official website. Han has also received a courtesy appointment in biomedical engineering, according to the post. The new time machine (speaking figuratively) from Han's lab is a lifelike reproduction of a specific structure of the pancreas, called the acinus, which secretes and produces digestive enzymes into the small intestine. When pancreatic cancer strikes, it typically comes from chronic inflammation, which is caused by a mutation that tricks the digestive enzymes to begin digesting the pancreas itself. This is bad.

However, if there were a means to turn back the clocks of time, and reprogram the cancerous acinar cells that generate those enzymes, it could reset the status of the pancreas. For a decade, Purdue's Professor Emeritus Stephen Konieczny of the department of biological sciences has extensively explored the viability of this potent rest button. No, that's not a figure of speech, it's really as simple as that, the whole trick centers on a gene called PTF1a. "The PTF1a gene is absolutely critical for normal pancreas development," said Konieczny in the post. "If you lack the PTF1a gene, you don't develop a pancreas. So, our whole idea was, if we turn the PTF1a gene back on in a pancreatic cancer cell, what happens? Will we revert the cancer phenotype?"

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New early-stage pancreatic cancer treatment could use gene therapy

"Indeed, that's exactly what happens," said Konieczny, in answer to himself. He worked with Han's lab to explore these findings in several molecular biology studies, testing the work in the lifelike model of the acinus. In other words, these scientists tested a biological time machine, and it worked. Conventionally, tests of promising pancreatic cancer treatments are first implemented in animals, but the illness can take months to happen in these creatures. Developing a way to research and develop cancer treatments in a microenvironment that emulates the physical organ afflicted by the illness is sufficiently realistic, saving months or longer in development time, in addition to providing scientists unparalleled control over the model.

Incredibly, the new model overcomes the substantial challenge of accurately capturing the anatomical complexity of the acinus, which is a circular cavity lined with living cells. "From an engineering perspective, creating this kind of three-dimensional cavity is not trivial," said Han in the post. "So, figuring out a way to build this cavity is an innovation in itself." The model is a postage-stamp-sized glass platform slapped onto a microscope slide, and it possesses two interconnected chambers. The scientists load one chamber with a collagen solution, which in turn fills the finger-shaped duct of the pancreas. This, in turn, bulges and expands to generate the structural cavity of the acinus, in the second chamber. While this unspeakably inspired work brings a novel means of reversing pancreatic cancer before it's too late, Han and his team are currently looking at the potential of introducing the treatment via gene therapy.

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