Pancreatic Cancer Research: What’s New after Another Year in the Lab?

25. 2. 2020

Detection of pancreatic cancer at an early stage. It was precisely a year ago that Professor Michal Holčapek of the Faculty of Chemical Technology presented a method that may save the lives of hundreds of thousands of patients. Journalists kept asking for interviews, doctors asked for the test results, and Professor Holčapek kept receiving one phone call after another. Volunteers wanted to join the research project and offered their samples for analysis. It will take some time, however, to implement the method in practice. The research has not finished. What progress has been made since?

At the moment, Professor Michal Holčapek of the Department of Analytical Chemistry and his team try to register a number of patents, and choose the best strategy to implement the national phase in selected countries which plan to focus on pancreatic cancer; the one with worst prognosis.

Cooperation with Specialized Centres

The research team has started cooperation with Ing. Karolína Pešková of the General University Hospital in Prague who works at a department responsible for newborn screening in the Czech Republic. Every year, some 70 000 newborns are tested for serious metabolism disorders. In the past, the department has already applied for new screening methods to be implemented in practice. “It is a department where the staff is in the best position to test whether the method really works. This will enable us to finish the steps necessary for the translation of our research into clinical practice,” says Professor Holčapek to explain the steps that need to be taken.

For a long time, the team led by Professor Holčapek has cooperated with Professor Bohuslav Melichar of the University Hospital in Olomouc, as well as doc. Roman Hrstka of the Masaryk Oncological Institute, which has provided the researchers with pancreatic cancer samples. Recently, cooperation has been started with Dr. Milan Vošmik of the Hradec Králové University Hospital; the cooperation is supervised by Professor Vladimír Palička, Hospital CEO, who shows a lot of interest in the research project.

Need for a Bigger Team

Two more PhD students have joined the team over the past year, so currently the team has seven members. Even with such a number of researchers, the research takes some time. “We try to verify every single detail as we want to be absolutely sure about what we show and present,” says Professor Holčapek. He would appreciate if there were more researchers in his team, a total of 10-12 would make him happy. Cooperation with external biologists, biostatisticians or software specialists would also be a major asset. “The most challenging, but at the same time, the most important aspect of our work is attracting good students to join the team. I believe, though, that our team has a lot to offer. If students like analytical chemistry, then they should check the available diploma thesis topics or contact me directly,” says Professor Holčapek.

First, students work with non-biological material and only gradually do they become acquainted with mass spectrometry, the software used and start working with lipids. Only once they have got over this research phase, have become vaccinated and received training, do they start working with tumorous cells and doing the analyses.

 “It was not until last year that I realized what a breakthrough our research may be. But then the results became real,” says Ondřej Peterka, a PhD student who would like to stay at the university even after he finishes his study citing interesting research and great people as his motive to do so.

Each member of the team brings new ideas as may be the case of Michaela Chocholoušková, who is doing a three-month stay in Singapore, where she is trying to develop a procedure for verifying the quality of the biological samples. The samples received from hospitals should be quickly frozen, but researchers lack a procedure for verifying the samples. Some samples fail and chemists do not know why since the cause of such failure may be either biological variability or mishandling.

In terms of lipidomic analysis, the teams in Singapore, Germany and Pardubice are the best in the world. “In Singapore, we have cooperation with Professor Wenk of the National University of Singapore, whose team is one of the top teams in the world. Recently, they have a opened, thanks to the support of the local government, a new laboratory which is exceptional on global scale. Míša is lucky to be at such a unique department,” says Professor Holčapek.  “We also have very good equipment even though we are not able to acquire the latest models. But still we are able to create conditions to be competitive.”

The researchers of the Faculty of Chemical Technology have produced interesting results, which are also attractive for clinicians since there is no reliable biomarker for early detection both in terms of research or patented inventions. “We have submitted a manuscript to the Nature Metabolism (impact factor of more than 32), and it has been selected for review. That is the case of 20% of manuscripts only. The rest is rejected by the editor-in-chief without the review procedure,” says Professor Holčapek.  Unfortunately, after we got four reviews, none of which seemed too negative, the editor-in-chief decided to discontinue the review process. The reviews required further verification such as analysis of samples by another independent laboratory, tests on cell lineages, tests on mice xenograft models. With this type of mice, the graft is derived from another animal species and tumour does not grow subcutaneously, but rather inside the organ. 

What Hinders the Research

In ten months, the team of Professor Holčapek acted upon all the comments, except for the mice tests. The reason is that it is an extremely expensive experiment carried out only by a few laboratories in the world. “At the moment, we have finished all the tests related to the paper, and we plan to amend the manuscript and resubmit the paper to the same journal,” says Professor Holčapek admitting that he wished he had made more progress. Unfortunately, there are both internal and external factors hindering the research, such as the high price of patent protection, search for a business partner to implement the project, non-existence of an ethical board at the university and slow development with commissioned research for other university hospitals. “The hospitals that have provided the samples ask for results. We are doing our best to publish the key findings about pancreatic cancer and make initial attempts to translate our method to another laboratory.” 

Excellent Research Achievements

At the moment, there are no screening procedures for early detection of a number of cancer types. “The methods that are available use glycoproteins, and they are not that reliable. Their reliability rate ranges from 70 to 80%. They fail, however, for early stages,” adds Professor Holčapek. What is key about the method developed at the University of Pardubice is that it works the same for any stage of the cancer. It is hard to treat patients with late stages of pancreatic cancer. Depending on the stage, the patient may live for a year or two, and is extremely unlikely to cure. If all tests are completed successfully and the method is translated into clinical practice, it will be success for the team of Professor Holčapek on a global scale, but more importantly it could save human lives thank to early diagnosis.

Research Team

Michal Holčapek

Michal Holčapek graduated from the Faculty of Chemical Technology and currently heads a team of young researchers. His research interests include mass spectrometry, lipidomic analysis and high-performance liquid chromatography. Michal Holčapek and his team do research into those types of cancer with his mortality and lack of a reliable screening method, e.g. pancreatic, lung, prostate or kidney cancer.

TEXT: Věra Přibylová/ PHOTO: Milan Reinberk