Porcine study will help researchers better understand liver cancer

UI Health has received a National Cancer Institute grant to develop a new pig model to better understand hepatocellular carcinoma. University of Illinois Cancer Center members Ron Gaba and Kyle Schachtschneider serve as the grant’s co-principal investigators.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) – the most common type of primary liver cancer – is the fifth most common cancer globally and the second most common cause of cancer death worldwide, said Gaba, MD, MS, associate professor of interventional radiology and vice head for research within the department of radiology at the UI Health. It is especially fatal when it grows beyond the original location and spreads within the liver.

HCC is often diagnosed at a late stage, at which 85% of patients are not candidates for surgery that can cure the disease. It is extremely resistant to chemotherapy and other treatments, resulting in a five-year survival rate of just over 17%.

“Advances in HCC treatment are highly dependent on developing new systems to better understand cancer growth,” Gaba said. “Our research group will develop a pig model of HCC – called the “Oncopig” – to investigate how different genetic mutations, created using genome editing, or CRISPR, affect the growth of HCC and its response to chemotherapy.

“This will allow us to better understand the progression of these tumors and provide us with important insights for diagnosing and treating liver cancer.”

The large size of a pig and its similarity in anatomy, physiology, metabolism, and genetics to humans make it an ideal platform to develop a genetically defined, large animal model of cancer, said Schachtschneider, PhD, research assistant professor of radiology and biochemistry and molecular genetics at UI Health.

“As obesity rates increase across the world, cancer patients commonly present clinically with multiple comorbid conditions,” Schachtschneider said. “As observed in clinical practice, liver cirrhosis frequently precedes the development of primary liver cancer or HCC. The Oncopig Cancer Model (OCM) has the capacity to develop tumors in combination with such relevant comorbidities, and this work will allow us to bridge the gap between basic research and clinical practice.”

The research will be conducted as a collaborative effort between the UIC Department of Radiology and the Department of Animal Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The grant is for two years, funded at nearly $383,000.

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