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Cell hunters: the quest to diagnose pancreatic cancer early

pancreatic cancer cells

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blogs that focus on members of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Center. Led by an inter-disciplinary team of scientists and clinicians, the Center holds the promise to significantly change the bleak statistics associated with this disease by revolutionizing pancreatic cancer care. One diagnostic tool they are advancing involves detecting pancreatic cancer cells in the bloodstream before any sign of cancer is obvious through current diagnostic techniques. The successful hunt for these cells would result in a tool for earlier detection, when treatment is more likely to be successful.

The first thing you notice about Diane Simeone, M.D., the Lazar J. Greenfield Professor of Surgery and director of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, is her tireless passion for finding better ways to detect and treat pancreatic cancer. So far, the survival prospects for this disease are dismal, she’ll tell you.

To begin, pancreatic cancer’s distinct, more aggressive biology makes it metastasize at much earlier stages than most other cancers. As survival for other deadly cancers improves, pancreatic cancer will likely move from the fourth to the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States around 2020. Dr. Simeone hopes that better funding and an increase in inter-disciplinary partnerships will improve the odds for patients with pancreatic cancer. If she has her way, a simple blood test will detect pancreatic cancer early and suggest customized therapies, giving patients a better chance for a cure.

To make early detection workable, you must first find the handful of pancreas cancer cells circulating undetected in the bloodstream. Dr. Simeone’s team is tracking down PanIN3, the most common precursor lesion in pancreatic cancer. Using microfluidic technology developed by team member Sunitha Nagrath, Ph.D., researchers sift through blood. It’s a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack, but the team IS finding circulating tumor cells. In the next phases of research, they will learn to concentrate enough cells to understand their biology further, and then develop molecular imaging that is able to identify the location of the cancer.

“The Holy Grail is two-fold: a blood test to reliably pick up cells in people at high risk, and molecular imaging to find the source so that the microscopic cancer-in-situ can be treated,” says Dr. Simeone. “I believe collaborations like ours that cross schools, colleges and disciplines hold the key to finding pancreatic cancer’s Holy Grail.”

Clinical trials are the path forward, so finding more people interested in volunteering is critical. Only about 6% of pancreatic cancer patients enroll in a clinical trial. If enough patients and people who are at risk participate, it will help assure that future patients with this cancer will know they have a high likelihood of survival.

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pancreatic cancer

Diane Simeone, M.D.

Diane M. Simeone, M.D., is the founding Director of the University of Michigan Pancreatic Cancer Center and is the Director of the Translational Oncology Program for the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Simeone’s principal clinical interests are in the management of solid and cystic pancreatic tumors. She has multiple National Institutes of Health grants investigating the molecular mechanisms important in the development and progression of pancreatic adenocarcinoma and the function of cancer stem cells. She also leads several studies focused on developing a blood test for the early diagnosis of pancreatic malignancy. Simeone serves on the National Scientific Advisory Board for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, National Pancreas Foundation, and the NCI Pancreatic Cancer Task Force. Simeone is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science.

Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.