Our Lab

The Lustgarten Foundation Dedicated Pancreatic Cancer Research Laboratory

The Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Research Laboratory

In 2012, the Lustgarten Foundation established a dedicated world-class laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to focus exclusively on pancreatic cancer research. In the United States, there are only a handful of labs that are dedicated to pancreatic cancer research, so partnering with a major laboratory is incredibly important for the advancement of pancreatic cancer research.

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), located in scenic Cold Spring Harbor, New York, is a leading biomedical research and education lab, that houses programs in cancer, neuroscience, plant biology and quantitative biology. The CSHL Cancer Center is an NCI-designated cancer center dedicated to the advancement of cancer research. Since the lab was established in 1890, there have been eight Nobel Prize winners who have conducted research at the lab, and the lab hosts more than 12,000 scientists from around the world annually.

David Tuveson, M.D., Ph.D.

Heading up the Lustgarten lab is internationally renowned physician-scientist Dr. Tuveson, who holds a dual appointment as the Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Cancer Center and the
Roy J. Zuckerberg Professor of Cancer Research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Chief Scientist at the Lustgarten Foundation.

Dr. Tuveson has impressive academic credentials and a long history of conducting groundbreaking research in the field of pancreatic cancer. As a physician-scientist, Dr. Tuveson merges his laboratory research with his clinical research and can bring new options to patients more rapidly.
During his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Tuveson generated the first genetically engineered mouse for pancreatic cancer, a model which is now used throughout the scientific community to test new therapies for pancreatic cancer.

While a professor at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Tuveson discovered that pancreatic cancer tumors develop a protective membrane, or stroma, which prevents chemotherapy from reaching cancer cells. He concluded that the dismal effectiveness of standard chemotherapy in treating pancreatic cancer could be due to the inability of the drug to reach its target. Moving forward, Dr. Tuveson and other scientists are concentrating on combining drugs designed to penetrate the stroma to treat patients more effectively.

His recent and most promising work has been on organoids, three-dimensional cell culture systems which reproduce a patient’s tumor in a dish in order to test is repeatedly, with the aim of identifying new potential treatments. Dr. Tuveson was the first scientist to use organoids for pancreatic cancer and has been a pioneer in developing organoids to determine which chemotherapy drug a patient’s tumor would respond best to. This type of research is known as personalized medicine and allows doctors to treat each patient with a customized treatment plan to maximize efficacy and improve quality of life.

Meet the Researchers

Our lab is comprised of 25 members who focus solely on pancreatic cancer every day, including research investigators, senior fellows, postdocs, clinical fellows, Ph.D. candidates, and technicians. The laboratory includes visiting high school and college students, graduate students who are working towards their doctoral degrees, and M.D./Ph.D. students who work at the lab and conduct research for their Ph.D. before returning to medical school.

  • Research Investigators/Senior Fellows – advanced scientists who have their Ph.D. and have been in a post-doctoral position for a number of years. Preparing to one day become a principal investigator on a research project.
  • Clinical Fellows – researchers with clinical training, who work in the lab to get more research experience.
  • Post-docs –scientists who have their Ph.D., and are beginning their careers.
  • Research technicians — technicians who have master’s degrees and assist with conducting experiments.

Research at the Lab

The Lustgarten laboratory works on many aspects of pancreatic cancer including new therapeutic and diagnostic platforms.  The lab is broken down into four main research areas: organoids, biomarkers, biology, and therapeutics.

Organoids for Pancreatic Cancer

The Lustgarten lab has been able to utilize organoid technology to bring a personalized medicine approach to the treatment of pancreatic cancer. By treating the organoid in the laboratory with many compounds and combinations of compounds to determine which are most effective in killing the cancer cells, patients in a clinical setting will be more likely to receive the drug that their tumor will respond to—the first time around. This is especially important for pancreatic cancer patients because they typically do not have time to try several different treatments to fight their disease, which is often not diagnosed until it is at an advanced stage.  Learn more about organoids.

Biomarkers

A biomarker is a biological molecule found in blood, fluid, or tissue that can be a sign of a condition or disease, and it can also be helpful in determining if a patient is responding to a certain treatment. The goal of the biomarker work is to find ways to detect pancreatic cancer sooner and have more patients be eligible to undergo surgery—which offers patients the best chance for long term survival. Researchers in this group focus on early detection methods and also utilize organoids to determine which chemotherapy drugs a patient would benefit from the most. While utilizing organoids as a treatment mechanism is still in the early stages of development, it has shown promising results and researchers hope that they will soon be able to grow and test the organoids faster so that they can offer patients the best chemotherapy drug for their tumor as a first-line treatment.
Researchers are also studying CA 19-9, a protein found in blood that is most commonly caused by pancreatic cancer. This biomarker can be a way to monitor pancreatic cancer patients after surgery and to track a potential relapse. Researchers are working to develop CA 19-9 as a tool to produce a more reliable biomarker that could lead to earlier detection of a pancreatic tumor.

Biology

There are many components that make up a pancreatic tumor and can complicate diagnosis and treatment. Researchers are focusing on the stroma and trying to understand the role it plays in pancreatic cancer. The stroma is a hard tissue that surrounds the pancreas and often impedes the ability of chemotherapy drugs to reach the targeted cancer cells. Dr. Tuveson likens the stroma in pancreatic cancer to that of an oatmeal-raisin cookie, where the raisins represent tumor cells and the oatmeal is the stroma. If you wanted to pick the raisins out, you would have to break up the oatmeal. That’s what researchers are trying to do by examining how certain cells help the cancer thrive, while other cells restrain the cancer cells in the stroma.

Researchers are also studying fibroblasts, which are long cells that are found in the protective layer of the stroma. In a recent paper, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory researchers explained their discovery that there are two distinct entities of fibroblasts and that they each have different functions. By studying the signals that make the different fibroblasts what they are, researchers hope that they can get a better understanding of the cells that support cancer cells.

Therapeutics

The therapeutics work focuses on testing new therapies that can target cancer cells, looking specifically at therapies that have not made it into the clinic to be tested yet.
One way new therapies can be studied in the lab is through utilizing organoids and testing treatment options to see which existing or investigational therapy has the best response rate. Researchers hope to learn why some patients are very sensitive to certain chemotherapy drugs while others are resistant. Ongoing research is being conducted to try to identify gene signals that can be extracted from a biopsy that will tell which patients will respond to standard chemotherapy.

Learn more about how we are using organoids for personalized medicine.

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