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Amy Collins, MD

Award Name TL1

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Improving early detection of pancreatic cancer

The OSU CCTS awarded Amy Collins, MD, with a TL1 Award for her research in the relationship of microRNA-21 and pancreatic cancer. Working with Sylwia Wojcik, MS, and Mark Bloomston, MD, Collins is working towards identifying the mechanism by which microRNA-21 levels are increased in a diseased pancreas, and how the increased levels of microRNA-21 protect pancreatic cancer cells from the effects of cellular stressors. By understanding the role of microRNA-21, therapeutic intervention may be possible.

Pancreatic Cancer is extremely deadly, with only 4% of victims living for five years after being diagnosed, and a majority of patients dying within one year of diagnosis. One reason for such a high mortality rate is that once the cancer invades local arteries, veins, and lymph nodes, the patients usually are no longer candidates for surgery.

“When it’s diagnosed, the cancer is typically far along and is very resistant to our current chemotherapy,” Collins said.

Currently, pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer due to the lack of symptoms and difficulty detecting a tumor before it spreads throughout the body. Generally, surgery to remove a tumor, radiation, or chemotherapy is chosen to kill malignant cells.

MicroRNAs are non-coding RNA that affect the transcription of proteins and other genes. MicroRNA-21 is altered in many different cancers, particularly in pancreatic cancer, which led to the interest of this specific microRNA study. MicroRNAs may be able to function as a biomarker to detect the growth of cancer sooner, allowing for earlier treatment.

Pancreatic cancer grows within a hypoxia state, or a low oxygen-environment. Collins’ research utilizes a hypoxia chamber to simulate a low oxygen environment similar to the hypoxic conditions found within the pancreatic cancer microenvironment. The microRNA-21 levels of incubated cells are measured and compared between the normal oxygen and low oxygen conditions. This could lead to earlier intervention and potentially prevent malignant growth.

“We look at why microRNA-21 is dysregulated and how it is dysregulated in pancreatic cancer,” Collins said. By blocking mutation of microRNAs, doctors could stop the growth of the cancer before it spreads and makes patients no longer candidates for surgery.

Computer models allow researchers to figure out potential targets of microRNAs. Researchers must then figure out the complicated pathways by which cells may escape the signals that normally keep the growth of cells under control, resulting in cancerous growths.

MicroRNAs are a new and unexplored field, and determining the pathways that microRNAs can affect is difficult. “There are so many pathways that microRNAs may affect, which provide many opportunities for this research to grow,” Collins said.

This one or two year study will continue with the goal of achieving early detection and stopping the mutated microRNA before cancer forms. “The goal is for this research to lead to the development of novel approaches for prevention or treatments. Our results can lead to new treatments being developed to help patients be treated more effectively and give them more time with family. You cannot put a price on that,” Collins said.

By Jessica Reynolds, Monday, March 8, 2010

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