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Published: 2021-06-24

A challenge to find the solution to pancreatic cancer

PROFILE Pancreatic cancer is one of the most severe cancer forms. It is difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat. It is a challenge to get closer to a solution on how to give patients the best possible help.

Text: Inger Nilsson
Image: Mattias Pettersson

Daniel Öhlund has taken on this challenge through his research at the Department of Radiation Sciences at Umeå University.

Pancreatic cancer can resist most existing treatments and the five-year survival rate is low, below 6 per cent.

“Pancreatic cancer is tough to get to, not least because the organ lies deep in the human body but also because the tumour is surrounded by a large amount of connective tissue. Cancer cells only make up for 10–20 per cent of the volume of the tumour,” says Daniel Öhlund.

In his lab, Daniel Öhlund and his colleagues are investigating how connective tissue (nerves, blood vessels, immune cells and extracellular proteins) interact with cancer cells and how they, in some cases, stimulate cancer growth contributing to resistance to treatment.

Surgery is currently an important part of treatment, but it does not always have the desired effect.

“Surgery is extensive and not completely risk-free. Side-effects can be serious. That’s why it is important to be certain to avoid unnecessary surgery. All patients cannot undergo surgery if the disease has already spread. Consequently, only 25 per cent of cases undergo surgery. You may find growing cysts that you know are preliminary stage cancer, in that case you should perform surgery.”

The possibly greatest challenge is to set diagnosis early

Reaching good results is difficult, and that is also what inspires researchers.

“It’s challenging. But lots of development is going on right now, both in terms of oncologic and surgical treatment of pancreatic cancer.”

The possibly greatest challenge is to set diagnosis early.

“It’s critical to find biomarkers indicating the cells that can demonstrate cancer early on. Symptoms are unclear and often show up late.”

Better methods to detect and treat pancreatic cancer

Many people are falsely tested positive, which is why Daniel Öhlund and his research group want to find better methods to detect and treat pancreatic cancer.

The disease can, in some cases, be hereditary or develop from chronic pancreatitis, such as for instance chronic inflammation of the connective tissue in the pancreas.

“We are working on some ideas, such as removing parts of the connective tissue of the tumour, for instance by developing drugs that block the connective tissue. But it’s likely to take ten years until we succeed.”

Which fibroblasts can prohibit cancer growth?

“When a person has cancer, certain types of fibroblasts, which is a type of cell that forms the structure of the connective tissue, and various types of connective tissues are produced. Some fibroblasts stimulate cancer cells, whereas others can inhibit cancer cell growth. That’s why we want to understand which fibroblasts can prohibit cancer growth. But it’s difficult to get to them.”

The research group has tested 36,000 potential drug substances and managed to boil them down to ten. In that way, they have managed to produce several ‘good’ fibroblasts – the ones that stop cancer cells from growing.

“Using 3D technology, we have been able to test substances in organoid models, which are mini tumours that we can introduce fibroblasts into. This is a method I helped develop in the US in 2014. Nevertheless, getting this to work on patients will take some time.”

Daniel Öhlund’s group works together with chemists to make the substances more drug-specific.

“In recent time, researchers have been able to sequence cell genome and decipher gene expression and subtypes. This hasn’t been possible before.”

An interest for research early on

The pancreas came into Daniel Öhlund’s research focus early in his career.

“I had an interest for research early on and invested my time into a summer graduate school here at the Faculty of Medicine in Umeå in 1998. That inspired my interest in the pancreas.”

After that, he completed the Biomedicine Programme and took a research preparatory course.

“I worked clinically when I happened to come into contact with Malin Sund, who studies pancreatic cancer, and that was why I ended up focusing on this particular subject.”

Postdoctoral appointment in the US

After having completed his postdoctoral appointment in the US in 2016, Daniel Öhlund received an assistant professorship with the Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine, WCMM. He applied and was granted funding to start and run his own research group.

Grants are necessary to conduct research, and sometimes funding comes from unexpected sources. This was the case when two sisters, whose relatives had passed away due to pancreatic cancer, decided to start a fundraising collection aimed at Daniel Öhlund’s research group in particular.

“All funding we receive is extremely valuable as it gives us the chance to test new ideas.”

Short facts

Daniel Öhlund has lived in Umeå since 2000, with the exception of a few postdoc years in the US. He is a resident physician of oncology at the University Hospital of Umeå, assistant professor at the Department of Radiation Sciences at Umeå University, and affiliated to the Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine, WCMM.

Daniel Öhlund leads a team of around ten staff and works half-time clinically and half-time with research. He intends to continue along those lines until he finishes his specialist training in December 2022. After that, he plans to put his full focus on pancreatic cancer, also in his clinical work.

About Daniel Öhlund

Family: Partner, who is also a research fellow at Umeå University

Comes from: Älvsbyn

Lives: Umeå.

Motivates me at work: The knowledge that new effective treatment strategies will make incredible difference for all patients with pancreatic cancer.

Inspires me: People with a strong motivation and ability to turn ideas into reality.

Best relaxation: Summer house in Obbola, which helps me rewind from work. I also like taking boat trips and kayaking.