Cell hunters: the quest to rapidly deliver personalized medicine to pancreatic cancer patients

Abnormal pancreas cells that have not yet turned into cancer

Abnormal pancreas cells that have not yet turned into cancer


Editor’s note: This is part of a series of blogs that focus on members of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Center. Led by an inter-disciplinary team of scientists and clinicians, the Center holds the promise to significantly change the bleak statistics associated with this disease by revolutionizing pancreatic cancer care. One therapeutic tool they are advancing involves gathering pancreatic cancer cells from the bloodstream, assembling them into replicas of a patient’s tumor and testing various drug combinations on the copies to develop personalized medicine for each patient.

Pancreatic cancer patients are getting closer to the day when a small amount of their own blood will provide enough information so that doctors can recommend personalized treatments targeting the whole tumor. If you ask Diane Simeone, M.D., the Lazar J. Greenfield Professor of Surgery and director of the Pancreatic Cancer Center, this vision of the future may become reality in the next five years.

Pushing the boundaries of science

Powered in part by a grant from the Lustgarten Foundation, researchers at the University of Michigan are pushing the boundaries of science to replicate individual pancreatic cancer tumors microscopically to use for developing personalized medicine, or therapies.

“The idea of isolating a patient’s own circulating tumor cells, assembling a microscopic copy of the tumor and creating an unlimited supply for on-the-spot drug testing is a real game changer,” says Dr. Simeone. “It is a new form of genetic sequencing and functional testing.”

A technique already developed by Dr. Simeone’s research team, in collaboration with Dr.  Sunitha Nagrath, for isolating circulating tumor cells was the foundation for this novel approach to personalized therapeutics.

“Having an efficient, reliable process for creating and reproducing micro tumors and testing them with drug combinations is almost like having a clinical trial for each patient, only faster. Soon, the knowledge from this process will guide patient care and it will only take two or three weeks to find a unique combination of drugs for the patient,” says Dr. Simeone.

International cooperation on copying micro tumors

The Simeone lab is leading efforts on an international scale to develop two different ways to assemble the cells into a micro tumor and make countless copies for testing drug combinations. In the first, tiny drops of liquid that provide a safe and nourishing environment hang on an almost invisible rack. Then the droplets are injected with samples of the different cancer cells. The cells come together in the droplets to form micro tumors.

The second technique assembles one micro tumor from a patient’s blood and will use a special 3-D printer to make copies.

Not all cancer cells are the same, but right now doctors make treatment assumptions based on a narrow knowledge of what kinds of cells are in the tumor. But some cells in the tumor are more harmful than others.

“So often, the goal is simply to shrink the tumor. But now that we can capture the most harmful cells and recreate the tumor itself for rapid response testing of drug combinations, in the very near future we can eradicate the entire tumor,” says Dr. Simeone.

In the next several years, when the laboratory process for recreating micro tumors is fast and reliable, Dr. Simeone expects to offer a Phase 1 clinical trial to design tailored single and combination therapies, as well as experimental agents targeting specific mutations.

Take the next step:

  • Learn more about U-M’s pancreatic cell hunters here and here.
  • Learn more about the research projects that our U-M investigators are leading that will help patients with pancreatic cancer.
  • Know Your Tumor. This nationally-based program provides pancreatic cancer patients and their oncologists with individual molecular analysis and a detailed report for use in developing a treatment plan. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is covering the associated costs. Read more about eligibility and KYT goals here.

pancreatic cancer

Diane Simeone, M.D.

Diane M. Simeone, M.D., is the founding Director of the University of Michigan Pancreatic Cancer Center and is the Director of the Translational Oncology Program for the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Simeone serves on the National Scientific Advisory Board for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, National Pancreas Foundation, and the NCI Pancreatic Cancer Task Force. She is chair-elect of the Scientific and Medical Advisory Board of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Simeone is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science.


Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.