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Organoid profiling personalizes treatments for pancreatic cancer

Research at CSHL
Organoids grown from patients' tumor samples can help target the most effective therapy for each patient in pancreatic cancer.
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A new tool to select the treatments most likely to work in specific patients

Cold Spring Harbor, NY — Patient-derived organoids, hollow spheres of cells cultured from tumors, can quickly and accurately predict how patients with pancreatic cancer respond to a variety of treatments, facilitating a precision-medicine approach to the deadly disease. The ability to use organoids as a treatment tool was investigated by an international team of researchers led by Dr. David Tuveson, M.D., Ph.D., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Professor and Chief Scientist for The Lustgarten Foundation.

“We’ve identified an approach to prioritize treatment strategies for pancreas cancer patients, with the goal of giving them the best shot at survival and the best shot at a good quality of life,” says Dr. Hervé Tiriac, a researcher in Tuveson’s lab and first author of the paper published today in Cancer Discovery.

With only 8 percent of patients surviving 5 years beyond their diagnosis, pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancer types. Currently, surgical removal of the cancerous tissue is the only effective treatment, but because the disease progresses so quickly, only 15 percent of patients are eligible for the procedure. Surgery-ineligible patients can be treated with drugs or chemotherapy, but patient response is highly varied and there is no good method to determine which treatment is best for any given patient.

For several years, Tuveson has been honing organoid technology to improve research into the disease. Aside from taking only as little as six weeks to grow, a major advantage of organoids is that they can be derived from patients with even very advanced pancreatic cancer, using tiny biopsies.

pancreatic cancer patients organoids
Organoids grown from 66 pancreatic cancer patients were exposed, one by one, to 5 standard-of-care chemotherapy drugs. After demonstrating that each organoid faithfully replicates the tumor from which it has been derived, researchers at CSHL measured the responsiveness of each organoid to each drug. For the four drugs shown here, a range of responses is indicated. Dots in the red-shaded area indicate the 33% of the the total set that most resisted the treatment; dots in the blue-shaded area represent the 33% that were most responsive. Such “pharmacotyping” should enable doctors to start patients on treatments most likely to help them, an urgent matter in pancreatic cancer, in which time is of the essence.

In this latest development, the Tuveson team generated a library of 66 organoids derived from pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) tumor specimens at various stages of the disease. The researchers demonstrated that the organoids provide an effective precision-medicine “pharmacotyping,” or drug-testing, pipeline. To do this, “we culture the organoid from the patient’s cancer and then test all possible standard-of-care drugs as well as experimental drugs,” Tiriac explains.

The team assessed RNA levels in individual organoids—a way to measure gene activity—to predict the sensitivity of an organoid to the five chemotherapies currently administered to pancreatic cancer patients. They found that three so-called “signatures” of gene activity in the organoids correctly identified patients who had responded well to these drugs. “The signatures should enable physicians to choose the best initial chemotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer,” Tuveson says.

Tuveson and his team plan to further refine the gene signatures through additional experiments, and to test in clinical trials the ability of signatures found in organoids to predict the responses of pancreatic cancer patients.

Written by: Chris Palmer, Science Writer | | 516-367-8455


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Lustgarten Foundation; National Institutes of Health; National Cancer Institute; V Foundation; Stand Up to Cancer; Precision Medicine Research Associates; SWOG ITSC; Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-AACR; State of New York; Concetta Greenberg in memory of Marvin S. Greenberg, M.D.; AACR Pancreatic Cancer Action Network; ASGE Endoscopic Research Award; Simons Foundation Award; Ontario Institute for Cancer Research; University Health Network BioBank; Ontario Institute for Cancer Research; Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute; Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University; Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation; Lebovich Chair in Hepatobiliary/Pancreatic Surgical Oncology.


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Tiriac H et al, “Organoid Profiling Identifies Common Responders to Chemotherapy in Pancreatic Cancer” appears online in Cancer Discovery May 31, 2018.

Find the paper on PubMed.

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About Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Founded in 1890, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has shaped contemporary biomedical research and education with programs in cancer, neuroscience, plant biology and quantitative biology. Home to eight Nobel Prize winners, the private, not-for-profit Laboratory employs 1,000 people including 600 scientists, students and technicians. The Meetings & Courses Program annually hosts more than 12,000 scientists. The Laboratory’s education arm also includes an academic publishing house, a graduate school and the DNA Learning Center with programs for middle, high school, and undergraduate students and teachers. For more information, visit

Principal Investigator

David Tuveson

David Tuveson

Roy J. Zuckerberg Professor of Cancer Research
Cancer Center Director
M.D., Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1994