NMF Visits Dr. McDonald’s Vanderbilt Lab
Nikki Mitchell Foundation’s board and friends were given a tour of NMF medical board member Dr. Oliver McDonald’s lab at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. His groundbreaking work is creative and he’s one of just a few scientists working on pancreatic cancer therapies instead of early detection.
Dr. McDonald began by showing us around the bench area of the lab, including a liquid nitrogen tank where pancreatic cancer patient samples are stored for experiments, various pieces of equipment used to study these patient samples, and the areas where pancreatic cancer cells from patients are grown, tested, and analyzed. One of these fancy pieces of equipment was a regular old crock pot!
We observed some of Dr. McDonald’s current experiments in progress, including cutting-edge techniques that coax cancer cells from patients to form tumors in three dimensions, directly in his lab incubators. This has become one of the major approaches used in his lab for all experiments, since this more accurately mimics how cancer progresses in patients compared to more traditionally used methods. He explained that these experiments have uncovered that pancreatic cancer metastases rely heavily on sugar to fuel their aggressive tumor-forming properties. This approach allows his lab to screen for new drugs that might block this and other processes that drive pancreatic cancer growth and spread. Dr. McDonald demonstrated this to us directly through a microscope, including new test drugs that strongly block metastatic tumors in his experiments. The 3D tumors under the microscope looked like a small ball of yarn, and the tumors treated with the drugs were barely visible and looked like small pin points.
Dr. McDonald took us back to his office where we viewed and learned about pancreatic cancer tissues taken directly from patients, which he diagnosis in his pathology clinical practice. Its become rare for a scientist to also have a pathology practice, but he said it’s been an excellent learning tool for him and given him deep knowledge and insights that would normally take longer to develop. His ultimate goal is to translate the laboratory findings from pancreatic cancer cells taken from the patients to the cancers that are growing in the patients themselves. Dr. McDonald envisions new therapies that will finally give hope to those who are diagnosed with late-stage, incurable disease.
Written by Dr. Oliver McDonald and Ariane Watkins