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Stefano Coppola Receives AXA RF Fellowship to Study Pancreatic Cancer

Leiden biophysicist Stefano Coppola has received the prestigious AXA Research Fund postdoctoral fellowship. With this grant he can work for two years on a project to research the role of mechanical factors in the development of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is the deadliest of all solid tumors. Doctors usually perform the diagnosis when the cancer has already metastasized. Because of the complexity and variety of metastatic pancreatic cancer, it is virtually impossible to cure. The best hope for reducing the mortality rate of pancreatic cancer lies in the diagnosis and treatment in the early stages.


There is persuasive evidence from other types of tumors that mechanical cues are connected with cancer progression. These could be mechanical pressure, stress or strain. On the one hand, a tumor causes its environment to become stiffer. On the other hand, a tumor changes how cells sense the mechanical cues, like stiffness, that are present.


During his fellowship, Coppola will investigate the processes that drive the initiation and progression of a specific type of mechanical distortion in the pancreas, called PanIN. It is well known that significant mechanical stress is a hallmark feature of pancreatic cancer. However, the way in which cells convert mechanical stimuli into biomolecular activity has so far been unexplored for pancreatic cancer. Coppola hypothesizes that mechanical cues represent a novel early and label-free diagnostic biomarker to explain how pancreatic cancer progresses.


Together with principal investigator Thomas Schmidt, Coppola will study the mechanical phenotypes of PanIN-damaged cells compared to normal pancreatic cells, by applying external forces on them and by observing forces exerted by cells on their surroundings. Understanding the role of force and mechanics in a developing tumor might eventually lead to novel molecular targeted therapies to predict and temper risks in early pancreatic cancer.

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