Bioethics Blogs

Snapshots of Life: A Van Gogh Moment for Pancreatic Cancer

Credit: Nathan Krah, University of Utah

Last year, Nathan Krah sat down at his microscope to view a thin section of pre-cancerous pancreatic tissue from mice. Krah, an MD/PhD student in the NIH-supported lab of Charles Murtaugh at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, had stained the tissue with three dyes, each labelling a different target of interest. As Krah leaned forward to look through the viewfinder, he fully expected to see the usual scattershot of color. Instead, he saw enchanting swirls reminiscent of the famous van Gogh painting, The Starry Night.

In this eye-catching image featured in the University of Utah’s 2016 Research as Art exhibition, red indicates a keratin protein found in the cytoskeleton of precancerous cells; green, a cell adhesion protein called E-cadherin; and yellow, areas where both proteins are present. Finally, blue marks the cell nuclei of the abundant immune cells and fibroblasts that have expanded and infiltrated the organ as a tumor is forming. Together, they paint a fascinating new portrait of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common form of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic acinar cells, which produce and secrete digestive enzymes, are organized like a cluster of grapes, with a narrow stalk-like tube connected to them that is lined with duct cells. PDAC had long been described as arising in the duct cells. But recent studies show that acinar cells also can form PDAC tumors, inspiring several groups to try and figure out how that’s possible.

Krah and his colleagues in the Murtaugh lab think they might have the answer.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.