Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researcher Catherine F. Whittington, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has received a $200,000 Career Development Award from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) to determine the role of fat cells within stiffening pancreatic tissues and how that environment promotes the development of pancreatic cancer.
Whittington’s two-year project will lead to a new laboratory model for pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common form of pancreatic cancer. PDAC is an aggressive disease that has low survival rates because it often spreads before it is detected.
“Diagnosing pancreatic cancer at an early stage is difficult because there are no distinct symptoms or biological indicators that doctors can assess,” Whittington said. “We need to explore new strategies for early diagnosis, and that requires a better understanding of how risk factors such as obesity contribute to the disease.”
Whittington will develop a laboratory model that will combine normal and genetically modified pancreatic cells in a collagen hydrogel that can be progressively stiffened to mimic fibrosis, the process in which the body produces excess tissue deposits. Fibrosis occurs in both obesity and PDAC, and it is known to play a role in transforming cells into small cancerous lesions and promoting the spread of cancer cells in the body. Whittington will use the laboratory model to uncover how physical changes in fat and pancreatic tissue impact the signals that travel between cells and drive the molecular changes that lead to malignancy.
More than 60,000 people are diagnosed each year in the United States with cancer of the pancreas, a gland that sits deep in the abdomen. The causes of pancreatic cancers are not well understood. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is a nonprofit organization that funds scientific research into the disease, programs for patients, and advocacy campaigns.
A member of the WPI faculty since 2018, Whittington previously conducted postdoctoral research on cancer cell signaling at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis.
“I’m interested in what happens between cells and the supporting materials that they interact with in the body’s tissues, and pancreatic cancer progression appears to be highly dependent on those interactions,” Whittington said. “As we build better laboratory models that capture the features of normal pancreatic tissue and pancreatic cancer tissues, we expect to learn more that can advance our understanding of this difficult-to-treat disease.”