A/Prof Phoebe Phillips


Success: Developed the first lab-grown human pancreatic cancer tumour with her team at UNSW.

Cancer Type: Gastro-Intestinal System Cancer

A/Prof Phoebe Phillips’ latest achievement with her UNSW team has unlocked a crucial development in understanding the mechanics of cancer.

Together, they have successfully grown a complete human pancreatic tumour model in a petri dish, offering a comprehensive view of the tumour for 12 days to analyse and test the effects of different drugs on the specimen. 

With the findings published in leading journal Scientific Reports, this development can give researchers greater insight into how tumours react to different treatments. "Essentially, we are trying to mimic the tumour in a way that best allows us to test therapeutics," Phoebe says. "This is the first model of its kind that lasts this long – other labs have done something similar, but only for two or three days, and even then it doesn't quite maintain the viability and the architecture of the tumours."

“Crucially, our team’s model stays intact for 12 days and offers a complete view of the tumour – an approach that has great potential for testing the effect of different drugs on the cancer, and offering personalised medicine approaches to patients down the track.”

"What it will allow us to do is test up to 10 different drugs simultaneously on a surgical specimen. Because you get the result in a couple of weeks, you could go back and inform the clinical team about which drug is working best on a particular patient's tumour – we hope that it'll end up being a really rapid way to feedback into the clinical situation."

Attacking the pancreatic cancer “fortress”

Due to the thick scar tissues surrounding pancreatic tumours and acting like a ‘fortress’ against chemotherapy, pancreatic cancer is challenging to treat.

Phoebe and her team have discovered that by repurposing an anti-arthritis drug called sulfasalazine, they can attack the scar tissue and ‘helper cells’ from which they grow from. By targeting a protein cell called SLC7A11 with sulfasalazine, the researchers are able to rewire the helper cells, reduce the scar tissue and limits the cells’ ability to grow the tumour.

“This scar tissue is produced by critical ‘helper cells’ – also called cancer-associated fibroblasts – which cancer cells recruit to support their growth and spread. Yet, these helper cells have been ignored in current treatment strategies,” Phoebe says. “Our approach hits both the tumour cells and the helper cells, so it’s ideal for overcoming the aggressiveness and drug resistance of the disease.”

“Using an approved drug has allowed us to get this piece into the clinic much faster than what would be the case if we started from scratch with drug development, too,” says Phoebe. “We are taking this exciting development all the way from the lab bench through to the clinic with the sole purpose of improving outcomes for patients with pancreatic cancer.”

Phoebe and her team aim to analyse and publish initial results from the clinical trial by 2024.

“Breakthrough research cannot happen without funding. The support I have received from Cure Cancer has been vital in allowing me to achieve success with my novel research project.”

Together, we can cure cancer.

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