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Inroads E-Newsletter


December 2021

$3.1 Million NCI Grant Supports Development of Potential Blood Test for Pancreatic Cancer

Tony Hu

Dr. Tony Hu, the Weatherhead Presidential Chair in Biotechnology Innovation, and his team are developing a blood test for early detection of biomarkers for pancreatic cancer.


The National Cancer Institute has awarded Tulane's Center for Cellular and Molecular Diagnostics (CCMD) in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology a five-year, $3.1 million U01 grant to further develop a blood test for early detection of biomarkers for pancreatic cancer.

For this project, Dr. Tony Hu, the Weatherhead Presidential Chair in Biotechnology Innovation and his team at Tulane School of Medicine have chosen to focus on pancreatic cancer (PC), as improvements in early diagnosis and treatment monitoring are urgently needed to improve outcomes. The American Cancer Society estimates that 57,600 new cases of PC will be diagnosed in the US this year, and 47,050 people will die from the disease. Because symptoms typically don't develop until later stages, PC diagnoses are often made when treatment options are severely limited. In fact, the 5-year relative survival rate for all stages combined averages only about 9%.

Extracellular vesicles (EVs) - bubble-like membrane-bound particles that are naturally released from cells - are the target biomarkers for this project. EVs are like small versions of the cells that generated them, encapsulating biological information from within the cellular environment and carrying that information to other cells throughout the body via the blood stream.

Researchers believe EVs hold great potential as novel biomarkers for cancer, because tumors abundantly secrete EVs that transport signaling molecules regulating tumor initiation, progression and metastasis. However, detecting tumor-derived EVs has been challenging due to the lack of simple methods for EV analysis.

The problem is that current analysis methods require relatively large sample volumes, are low-throughput and require EV pre-isolation steps, making them labor-intensive, time-consuming, less precise and therefore impractical for clinical use.

To address this problem, the CCMD research team has developed a rapid, robust, isolation-free, minimally invasive and cost-effective assay that directly quantitates tumor-derived EVs in small volumes of serum or plasma. This project focuses on smart technology - a nanoparticle-based digital EV reader - that detects target proteins on the surface of tumor-derived EVs.

In a pilot study, this technology distinguished pancreatic cancer cases from non-malignant controls (patients with pancreatitis and healthy individuals) with high sensitivity. The assay also differentiated pancreatic cancer tumor stages and responses to therapy, outperforming biomarker testing methods currently used for PC therapy assessment. Based on the success of the pilot study, researchers propose in this current project to further develop and validate the assay to allow for rapid and accurate PC diagnosis in clinical settings.

Tulane’s CCMD team worked in collaboration with a group of MD Anderson basic science cancer researchers and oncologist scientists on this grant. The successful results of this work will have a significant translational impact in cancer management, through reliable and accessible screens for the early detection of pancreatic cancer. Researchers believe it can also be adapted to diagnose and monitor cancers that express other EV biomarkers.

Pancreatic Tumor Derived EV

Pancreatic tumor-derived extracellular vesicles (depicted at left) are the target biomarkers for this project. (Image provided by Tulane's Center for Cellular and Molecular Diagnostics)

Previous Issues...

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