A new $750,000 gift has been awarded to the laboratory of Kenneth Olive, PhD, at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons to support the development of novel therapeutics for pancreatic cancer. The gift is provided by the Rockhammer Charitable Fund.

Dr. Ken Olive (Credit: Diane Bondareff)

Dr. Olive, who is an associate professor of medicine and a member of the Precision Oncology and Systems Biology research program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC), focuses on understanding the complex biology of pancreatic tumors and translating that understanding into clinical practice.

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related mortality in the U.S., with the lowest overall survival rate among all cancers. It is one of the toughest cancers to treat and has proven frustratingly resistant to new generations of targeted and immune-based therapies. New therapeutic options are desperately needed for this highly lethal disease. Dr. Olive’s research program focuses on bridging from the basic science laboratory into the clinical domain of the Pancreas Center, a multidisciplinary center of excellence for the treatment of pancreatic cancer at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

The new gift will provide two years of support for a rapid preclinical development program within the Olive Lab’s “Mouse Hospital”. This translational infrastructure is designed to quickly test novel drug combinations using gold-standard preclinical models of pancreatic cancer.

The gift will enable the rapid analysis of two-drug combinations identified using computational approaches developed in collaboration with Dr. Andrea Califano, co-director of the Precision Oncology Systems Biology research program at the HICCC and chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Columbia. Their approach combines Dr. Olive’s expertise in pancreatic cancer biology with Dr. Califano’s computational method for matching patients to FDA-approved drugs based on their tumor RNA. In contrast to more traditional DNA-based precision medicine approaches (which only predict matching drugs for a small percent of patients), the researchers’ preliminary analyses have identified at least one matched drug for about 85% of patients. The pair are now expanding this work to investigate multi-drug combinations for pancreatic tumors.

“There is extraordinary need for new approaches to treating pancreatic cancer. In my opinion, it’s unlikely that any single drug is going to be sufficient to cure pancreatic cancer. But how do we identify rational drug combinations that are targeted to a patient’s tumor?” says Dr. Olive.

“Working with Professor Califano, we have developed a computational approach to predict pairs of drugs that act synergistically to attack pancreatic tumors. But so far, this is just a hypothesis that needs to be tested. This incredible gift will enable the rapid evaluation of many different drug combinations in sophisticated surrogate models. We hope this program will lead to the identification of new drug combinations that will be more effective in treating the disease while also being less burdensome to the patient’s overall health.”

-Melanie A. Farmer