PhD Candidate Profile: Anouschka Akerman


What is your research about?

 I am currently completing the final year of my PhD in the Pancreatic Cancer Translational Research Group under the supervision of A/Professor Phoebe Phillips. I was inspired to join the group and work on this project after learning about pancreatic stellate cells, the deadly helper cells that wreak havoc within the pancreatic tumour. Given the poor outcome of this cancer, identifying any novel therapeutic targets is a big step forward. My goal is to see the targets I have identified become clinically-relevant therapeutic tools, to ultimately help pancreatic cancer patients.

Pancreatic cancer is a lethal disease for which there are very limited effective treatments. This poor outcome is in part attributed to dense scar tissue which is produced by pancreatic stellate cells. Scar tissue impedes nutrient and oxygen penetration into tumours and is a physical barrier to chemotherapy drugs. Pancreatic stellate cells also increase the resistance of pancreatic cancer cells to chemotherapy drugs and promote the spread of tumour cells to other organs. Therefore, proteins that support pancreatic stellate cell survival when nutrients and oxygen are scarce represent potential therapeutic targets.

Our laboratory has identified several transport proteins that carry nutrients into the cell, which are critical for pancreatic stellate cell survival. Interestingly, these transporters also feed key nutrients to neighbouring cancer cells needed to sustain their energy production and metabolism. Hence, inhibition of these transporters may directly reduce pancreatic stellate cell survival by depriving these cells of critical nutrients required to maintain cell proliferation. Importantly, we anticipate inhibition of nutrient transport proteins may indirectly reduce tumour cell survival by starving tumour cells of an important energy source.

The study has significant clinical relevance as we have uncovered novel therapeutic targets in pancreatic cancer that reduces the survival of pancreatic stellate cells and could decrease pancreatic cancer cell survival. Future work involves developing tools to target these nutrient transporters in pancreatic tumours, which could be applied in the management of other hard to treat cancers.



What is translational application of your research?

Currently, patients with pancreatic cancer have very limited effective treatment options given the recalcitrance of pancreatic tumours to current chemotherapeutics. Cancer therapy is moving towards a more personalised medicine approach in which cancer patients are treated based on the unique characteristics of their tumour, instead of a broad treatment being applied to all patients. This study has successfully uncovered novel therapeutic targets in cancer-associated pancreatic stellate cells in pancreatic cancer. These gene targets could be inhibited in a clinical setting using a nanomedicine-based approach as these targets lack specific inhibitors. Our laboratory has developed a novel nanoparticle (in collaboration with the Australian Centre for Nanomedicine) which can successfully deliver RNA interference (RNAi) therapy to pancreatic tumours in mice in vivo.