Edna Cukierman, PhD
Edna Cukierman, PhD, of Fox Chase Cancer Center, has received a $292,999 grant from Worldwide Cancer Research for a 2-year study of the microenvironment of pancreatic cancer cells. Dr. Cukierman, Associate Professor in the Cancer Biology Research Program and Co-Leader of the Marvin and Concetta Greenberg Pancreatic Cancer Institute, will investigate the role of cancer-associated fibroblasts in neoneurogenesis, as well as the abnormal presence of central nervous system proteins in the pancreatic cancer microcellular environment.
Treating pancreatic cancer presents unique challenges due to the modifications of the cellular microenvironment, which cause an overabundance of fibrous tissue as well as a dramatic increase in new nerve development in the pancreas. These processes are associated with pain, metastasis, and poor patient prognosis.
Additionally, patients who have undergone removal of their pancreas do not always fully recover. Dr. Cukierman believes that the abundant neoneurogenesis and local cancer-associated fibroblasts and cancer-associated fibroblast–generated extracellular matrices are key components to understanding why cancer cells are able to persist and repopulate healthy tissue after surgery.
Novel Research Approach
When comparing patient-harvested cancer-associated fibroblasts from the pancreas with unaffected neighboring pancreatic fibroblastic cells, Dr. -Cukierman’s team noticed that a protein normally found in brain synapses was allowing cancer-associated fibroblasts to mimic some nerve functions. She theorizes that the fibroblasts are using this synapse-like form of communication to both connect with nerves and enable the survival of cancer cells.
Previous trials have attempted to entirely eliminate cancer-associated fibroblasts, often resulting in making the cancer more aggressive. As part of her novel approach, Dr. Cukierman believes that by targeting the synapse-associated protein (or proteins) alone, the pancreatic cancer–educated fibroblasts will cease enabling pancreatic cancer progression and regain their natural tumor-suppressive function. Her team will now focus on normalizing the cellular microenvironment and “persuade the neighborhood cells to behave as good/productive citizens again.”