Chronic & Non-communicable Diseases

Post-Doctoral Fellowships


Fighting pancreatic cancer by developing a new approach for early diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer is almost always fatal. The disease affects more than 300,000 new patients every year in the world. An approximated 7 % of them survive more than 5 years after the diagnosis, all stages combined. The low survival rates are mainly ascribed to the fact that pancreatic cancer is rarely diagnosed at an early stage. Once it has metastasized, the cancer is virtually impossible to cure. To help develop novel strategies, Dr. Stefano Coppola of the Institute of Physics at the University of Leiden, is exploring the mechanical properties of pancreatic cells and how they play a role in the progression of malignancies. A better understanding of the biomechanics of cancerous cells could provide fundamental insights into the biology of pancreatic cancer, potentially crucial for early diagnosis.
« Roughly a decade ago, researchers have pointed out the relationship between tumor rigidity and its behavior », relates Dr. Coppola. « More recently, there has been a paradigm shift, in which disease progression is thought to be controlled by mechanics. » « Our guess is that if we can link the mechanical properties to cancer progression, our findings would pave the way for the development of a new label-free method of diagnosis », explains the biophysicist. Unlike current methods which require specific biomarkers – substances that reveal the presence of a specific indicator of a biological state –, Dr. Coppola’s method would be label-free, making it attractive for diagnostic applications. « The best hope we have to reduce the mortality of pancreatic cancer lies in the diagnosis and treatment of the early, non-invasive form of the disease », Dr. Coppola points out. « Mechanical properties of cells could constitute dependable biomarkers of the early onset of pancreatic cancer ».

Determining the role of force and mechanics on pancreatic cancer progression

To test his hypothesis and link mechanical properties of pancreatic cells to the progression level of a tumor, Dr. Coppola will experiment on human pancreatic cells grown in a laboratory, under the supervision of Prof. Thomas Schmidt. By introducing them with genetic alterations known to occur in pancreatic cancer, the team will be able to work on cells that behave the same way as their native cancerous counterparts. The experiments will consist of conducting mechanical measurements at different stages of cancer progression. More specifically, the researchers will apply stress on the cells in order to simulate what happens in the real pancreas and then measure their response. Simultaneously, the team will investigate the changes in the molecular behavior of the cells, thus aiming to understand the role of force and mechanics on cancer progression.

« So far, there are no effective therapies to reduce the mortality of pancreatic cancers », reports Dr. Stefano Coppola. Whereas significant improvements have been observed in the survival rate of numerous other cancers in recent years, mortality from pancreatic cancer remains unchanged.
By exploring new and innovative territory, Dr. Coppola’s objective is to uncover new fundamental knowledge about the progression of the disease. Not only could his findings lead to the development of a new diagnosis tool, his research could also contribute to the emergence of novel therapies involving new targets.



Leiden University





ORCID Open Researcher and Contributor ID, a unique and persistent identifier to researchers