Understanding pancreatic cancer, one gene at a time

Krushna Patra’s life research goal is to cure pancreatic cancer.

“This devastating cancer is difficult to diagnose at early stages of development, and there are limited effective treatment options available,” he says.

To do this, he’s creating models to help study variations of the disease and find the best possible treatment for each mutation involved in its development.

Patra, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine Department of Cancer Biology, was recently awarded a $200,000 Career Development Award from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) to fund his projects.

Patra, along with UC colleague Xiaoyang Qi, PhD, was just one of 10 national winners of a 2020 PanCAN research award.

Krushna Patra in his lab

“We are interested in uncovering unique pathways established by specific gene mutations in cancer cells. Hopefully, we will eventually be able to come up with more targeted treatments for patients,” says Krushna Patra, PhD. Photo/Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

Patra realized there was no way available to study this type of pancreatic cancer mutation in the lab, but now, through his innovation, he was one of the first to replicate in animal models the GNAS mutant pancreatic cancer that mimics human disease. His model also shows GNAS is not only required for cystic tumor formation, but also for tumors to survive.

He believes that knowledge of the gene mutations causing pancreatic cancer can be gained if studied in the right model systems. His lab is now trying to create additional models, called organoids, by growing tumors in laboratory cultures and in human samples, enabling him and others to study various types of pancreatic cancer.

“We are interested in uncovering unique pathways established by specific gene mutations in cancer cells. Hopefully, we will eventually be able to come up with more targeted treatments for patients,” he says. “My lab will also continue looking at the other cells in a tumor’s environment – what’s around them where they ‘live’ – to determine what role it might play on tumor formation and sustainability.”

Patra says the collaborative environment at UC is a wonderful place to do this meaningful work.

“Working with my clinical counterparts, including Dr. Syed Ahmad and other colleagues at the UC Cancer Center, we will continue to try to understand this devastating disease better and find out targets for precision medicine around multiple mutations of pancreatic cancer,” he says.

“Several years ago, while I was still at Massachusetts General Hospital, I was giving a talk to donors about my research, particularly my focus on GNAS mutations in cystic pancreatic cancer,” he adds. “As it ended, the room started to empty, but one person remained – this doesn’t usually happen with a basic science talk. This person approached me and told me that he has premalignant cysts of the pancreas. He asked me what we have learned about this kind of pancreatic cancer and wanted to know more about clinical trials and treatments. And that’s why I do what I do. At that moment, I saw how my work could help people one day. It put a face with the condition.

“It made it all a bit more real.”

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