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Pancreatic Cancer

th (39)For more than a decade, a glassy striped fish smaller than a door key has proved an important model organism in scientific research. Named for the uniform horizontal stripes on the side of its body, the zebrafish is a tiny creature that packs a punch in terms of biological similarities with the human.

Today, scientists at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) are using zebrafish to accelerate investigations of pancreatic cancer, the nation’s fourth-leading cause of cancer-related death.

The organizations will announce Tuesday that they are collaborating to find biological indicators, or biomarkers, of pancreatic cancer, which could help doctors diagnose the disease earlier and provide better treatments to sick patients. The hope is that earlier treatment would extend the lives of patients with pancreatic cancer, a disease that is hard to detect and almost always fatal. Most patients die within months of diagnosis.

“For us to make a difference in this disease, we fundamentally have to understand the disease much better, and we have to have a way of detecting it,” said Niven R. Narain, cofounder and president of Berg LLC, the Framingham company.

The third member of the partnership is a Pancreatic Cancer Research Team, a network of 48 cancer centers around the globe. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the disease, with an average five-year survival rate of 7%. The partnership, which includes the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, as well as the Pancreatic Cancer Research Team (PCRT), is scheduled to be announced on Tuesday.

Recently, Berg has been working with the U.S. Department of Defense to find a more efficient and effective way to combat prostate cancer. While prostate cancer has a relatively high survivorship rate if caught early, treatment is often painful and extremely expensive. The DoD spends millions of dollars each year treating veterans and servicemen diagnosed with the disease.

Researchers will begin collecting data on 500 patients, but are hoping to increase that number over time. “This is a potentially very large project,” Moser said.And because of lower costs associated with maintaining zebrafish, investigators can conduct multiple studies in relatively short periods of time.