Posted on 26th August 2022 by bwarman

PCRF’s national pancreas tissue bank extends access to precious pancreas samples

The world’s first national pancreas tissue bank has recently opened its stores to UK-based researchers to access high-quality pancreas samples that will facilitate vital research into improving the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Researcher's hand, wearing a blue glove and holding a microscope slide.The Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (PCRF) Tissue Bank, funded by the medical charity PCRF and based at Barts Cancer Institute (BCI), Queen Mary University of London, has been prospectively collecting pancreas tissue, urine, blood and saliva from across the nation since 2015. Whilst blood, urine and saliva samples have been available to researchers since 2020, the tissue bank team is now extending access to pancreas tissue samples and tissue derivatives.

Hemant Kocher, Professor of Liver and Pancreas Surgery at Queen Mary’s BCI, and Chief Investigator and Co-Director for the PCRF Tissue Bank, said:

“Pancreas tumour tissue is usually collected during surgical removal of the tumour. As only 15% of patients with pancreatic cancer receive their diagnosis in enough time to be eligible for surgery, every sample of pancreatic cancer tissue collected is of great value to research.

“There are over 3,500 pieces of high-quality tumour and normal pancreas tissue stored within the bank that will be able to facilitate high-quality pancreatic cancer research. We are really proud of this achievement and extremely grateful to the patients who have made this possible.”

Each tissue bank sample is catalogued with anonymised data about the tumour type, grade, and the clinical history of the donor, including any treatment the patient received and patient outcomes. This information allows researchers to search for the samples that are relevant to their research needs, and to determine whether research findings correlate with clinical observations.

Claude Chelala, Professor of Bioinformatics at BCI and lead for the Bio-Informatics for the PCRF Tissue Bank, said:

“The PCRF Tissue Bank provides unique access to biosamples at all stages of the clinical pathway including well annotated clinical data. Our dedicated team is uniquely placed to integrate comprehensive molecular data collected throughout the patient’s journey with rich longitudinal clinical data covering any other medical conditions and treatments received.”

Close up of a freezer used to store tissue bank samples.
Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund Tissue Bank freezers used to store samples.

All data generated from research using samples from the tissue bank is fed back into a bespoke database that is freely accessible to the global research community.

The tissue bank currently holds data and samples collected from over 2,000 patients across England and Wales, with over 55,000 separate aliquots of various material, including tissue, urine, saliva and blood products (plasma and serum). Of the tissue samples stored in the tissue bank, over 31,500 are from pancreatic cancer patients.

As well as collecting and storing samples from patients with pancreatic cancer and other pancreatic conditions (pancreatitis, pancreatic cysts and pre-cancerous pancreatic lesions), blood, urine and saliva samples from first degree relatives of patient donors and healthy volunteers are also collected.

Driving research forward for this hard-to-treat cancer type

Resources from the PCRF Tissue Bank are being utilised at BCI and beyond, enabling research into new ways to diagnose and treat pancreatic cancer, as well as to understand the biology of the disease. With pancreas samples now added to the resource list, the PCRF Tissue Bank will continue to accelerate pancreatic cancer research and drive improvements for patients.

Professor Kocher is collaborating with researchers at Edge Hill University, University College London, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Hertfordshire on a project that aims to develop a machine learning algorithm that can help to predict what pancreatic cysts are at risk of developing into pancreatic cancer.

Although pancreatic cysts are usually not cancerous, some do have the potential to become pancreatic cancers; however, currently available routine tests cannot tell which cysts may become cancers with certainty.

The team will feed information on pancreatic cysts stored within the PCRF Tissue Bank into a machine learning network called a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) to discover hidden patterns and features that indicate what pancreatic cysts are likely to develop into cancer.

As early diagnosis offers the best chances of survival, the team hopes the algorithm will be able to help identify in which patients and when cancer is likely to occur, allowing for timely interventions.

The PCRF Tissue Bank is also facilitating the work of Professor Chelala and her team at BCI. They have found it is possible to identify and track genetic variations in the tumours of patients with pancreatic cancer using a simple blood test, which could help to predict the course of disease in individual patients and tailor clinical decisions to each patient’s cancer.

Professor Chelala said:

“We have identified cancer-specific markers in blood that can be tracked over the course of a patient's disease. The next step is to validate our results in a larger cohort from the PCRF Tissue Bank and design/test a prognostic gene panel for clinical use that could tangibly benefit the ~85% of PDAC patients with inoperable tumours.”

Maggie Blanks, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund said:

“The PCRF Tissue Bank has been the charity’s largest single investment to date at £2.4M – made possible thanks to our supporters. Our initial aim was to provide a way to accelerate research in the UK by providing access to high quality tissue samples and their associated patient data. We’ve been rewarded by seeing the Tissue Bank grow into a significant resource for the global pancreatic cancer research community and we are incredibly proud of this achievement.”

Seven NHS partners across the country and one collaborating centre currently serve as tissue collection centres for the tissue bank: Barts Health NHS Trust (London); The Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust; University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust; Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust; University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust; Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust; University College Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust; and The London Clinic.

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