Pioneering New Treatments in Pancreatic Cancer

How V Foundation funded researcher Sahar Nissim, M.D., Ph.D., is seeking advancements against one of the toughest cancers

Multiple experiences drove 2022 V Scholar and Harvard Professor Sahar Nissim, M.D., Ph.D., to research pancreatic cancer, one of the most difficult cancers to study.

First, an unforgettable moment as a resident. Dr. Nissim witnessed a family of children saying their final goodbyes to a mother dying of pancreatic cancer. Even at one of the most advanced medical centers in the world, the only thing the medical team could offer was palliative care. It was a hard and motivating experience.

Then, taking care of individuals deemed high-risk for pancreatic cancer provided another perspective. For these patients, there are limited options. There is screening in hopes of catching the cancer early, but even in those cases the best opportunity for cures comes with surgery.

“These insights compelled me to understand the earliest steps in pancreatic cancer formation in order to pioneer an ‘interception’ strategy targeting precursors before they are even visible and before they progress to intractable disease,” Dr. Nissim said. “Imagine being able to take a daily medicine to prevent pancreatic cancer from ever forming. My research group is working to make this vision a reality.”

Pancreatic cancer cells, particularly the acinar cells which are responsible for making digestive enzymes to help break down food, are very difficult to study. But Dr. Nissim’s team developed a new way to study these cells called “FixNCut”.

With FixNCut, Dr. Nissim “freezes” the cells temporarily to make them easier to study. The Nissim lab used this method to look at a mouse’s pancreas when it had a kind of sickness called acute pancreatitis. They learned new insights about the different cells in the pancreas and how the cells react during this sickness.

The team also compared their findings with other studies to make sure this new method worked for studying both mice and humans. This way, Dr. Nissim and other researchers can use FixNCut to create a guide for understanding how the pancreas works normally and what goes wrong when it gets sick, like in cancer.

In simple terms, Dr. Nissim has invented a new way to study the pancreas to ensure those acinar cells keep showing up for the job; it’s like creating a special map of the pancreas ‘borough’ to help understand how the pancreas works, and what goes wrong in cancer.

“FixNCut is a crucial advance in our ability to study the precursors to pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Nissim said. “The pancreas is the physiologic source of digestive enzymes responsible for food breakdown. These same digestive enzymes also interfere with study of pancreas cells and cancer precursors, making such characterization historically challenging. FixNCut devises a way to immediately inactivate these digestive enzymes, allow the study of pancreas cells and cancer precursors with unprecedented quality and resolution. We anticipate this method will significantly accelerate research on the earliest events occurring in pancreatic cancer precursors.”

Dr. Nissim is one of many V Foundation researchers driven to change the game in cancer research. He credits the V Foundation for being influential in helping continue progress toward Victory Over Cancer®.

“Launching an impactful research program can take years of benchwork, team building, collaborative interactions, and effective communication with presentations and publications. This foundational work is essential to securing NIH funding that is crucial to sustaining a research program. Support of the V Foundation provides a runway ensuring progress continues.”

Read Dr. Nissim’s paper and find out more about the Nissim Lab.

“Cancer means fear, pain, disruption of dreams, and loss to individuals and their families. ‘Victory Over Cancer’ brings all of that to an end by prevention, effective treatment, or cure. Conquering an enemy that does not discriminate, ‘Victory Over Cancer’ also represents a team achievement of generations of scientists, clinicians and patients.”

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