Dr. Jennifer Knox

Mapping Pancreatic Cancer Cells

A Critical First Step in Treating the Silent Killer

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in Canada. It is also known as a silent killer – difficult to detect and quick to spread.

Two years ago, a $5 million study was launched at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre to improve the way we study pancreatic cancer. The hope is that it will help transform the way the disease is treated. The trial is called Comprehensive Molecular Characterization of Advanced Ductal Pancreatic Adenocarcinomas for Better Treatment Selection: A Prospective Study (COMPASS).

In simple terms, the study collects biopsy samples from patients and attempts to map the DNA sequence of cancer cells. Dr. Jennifer Knox is the Co-Director of the Wallace McCain Centre for Pancreatic Cancer at The Princess Margaret and a Principal Investigator on the study. She says this really hasn't been possible until now.

“You don't always get enough cancer cells in a sample to get a DNA sequence. So we do a lot of extra steps. We have pathologists who actually micro-dissect the cancer cells away from all the background, enriching the sample until there are enough cancer cells to actually get a DNA read.”

Because of these extra steps, COMPASS has been able to map the cancer cells. “It's a critical first step,” says Dr. Knox.

“We're not curing this terrible disease yet, but we are making therapies perhaps more targeted so that patients can live longer.”

“Hopefully we can avoid treatments that won't work for them, which leaves them in better condition to try something else.”

The study is funded by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, the Terry Fox Research Institute and Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation. It has been expanded to Vancouver, Calgary, Kingston, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.

“I have to believe that what we're doing here is really going to make a difference,” says Dr. Knox. “I absolutely believe that.”

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