A new analysis out today projects that pancreatic cancer will be the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States by 2030, behind lung cancer. Pancreatic cancer will leapfrog breast cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer, which are currently top killers. The analysis is from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
We talked with Diane Simeone, M.D., director of the University of Michigan Pancreatic Cancer Center, about what this new analysis means. Dr. Simeone, a pancreatic cancer surgeon and researcher, is on the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s National Scientific Advisory Board but was not involved with this analysis.
mCancerPartner: Did this announcement surprise you?
Dr. Simeone: No, it didn’t surprise me. I’ve been watching the number of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer creep up in recent years, but the survival rate has not changed. And we’ve seen improvements in survival for other cancer types. This is partly due to better screening technologies for these other cancers, but we’ve also seen a lot more new treatments introduced for other cancers.
mCancerPartner: Why haven’t we seen those same types of improvements in pancreatic cancer?
Dr. Simeone: It’s multifactorial. Pancreatic cancer has a distinct, more aggressive biology. It tends to metastasize at much earlier stages. And there’s a smaller pool of researchers working on this disease because of low levels of National Institutes of Health funding that have centered on pancreatic cancer.
mCancerPartner: What do you hope this new analysis helps to achieve?
Dr. Simeone: What I’d like to see happen is more focus and funds for pancreatic cancer research. We’ve been collectively working at the national level to make that happen through discussions with the NIH. But with cuts in NIH funding, that’s been difficult. I’m hoping this data will serve as a wake-up call to our community. We need to accelerate the pace at which we develop an early detection blood test for pancreatic cancer and more effective therapies. We need to move beyond NIH funding and increase efforts in philanthropy focused on pancreatic cancer to solve this problem.
mCancerPartner: Describe some of the research happening at U-M in pancreatic cancer.
Dr. Simeone: Our Pancreatic Cancer Center is responsible for some of the top scientific discoveries related to the disease in the last five to six years. This includes identifying pancreatic cancer stem cells, the small number of cells within a tumor that fuel its growth and spread. We’re now testing new drugs designed to target and kill the cancer stem cells.
Other research focuses on measuring the circulating tumor cells in patients, isolating them in blood samples. Techniques are sensitive enough for early detection, and allow us to study the signals that drive metastasis. We’re also gaining new insights into why pancreatic cancer metastasizes so early, and the signals that drive pancreatic cancer cells to enter the blood stream. And we showed that a mutated gene called KRAS is required for pancreatic cancer to develop and be maintained in mice.
mCancerPartner: What do you see in the future for pancreatic cancer research and care?
Dr. Simeone: We need people to have an understanding of the seriousness of this problem. People have thought of pancreatic cancer as an uncommon disease and the fact is it’s not an uncommon disease. Most people will have known someone or heard of someone who has died of pancreatic cancer. It’s been this silent killer and because so many succumb to the disease, there’s a relatively small advocacy group and cadre of survivors to stamp their feet and demand something gets done.
I think, within the cancer community, we’re going to see a lot more attention paid to pancreatic cancer in the coming years. At the University of Michigan, we have a team of researchers focused on transforming the landscape in pancreatic cancer. We are poised and eager to extend the highly innovative work we are doing in the laboratory into unprecedented ways to diagnose, treat and cure pancreatic cancer.
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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.
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