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Research Update Corner: Fall 2009

Much has been going on in the pancreatic cancer scientific community, and as The Foundation’s Research Program Manager, I am delighted to bring you this inaugural installment of Research Update Corner. I hope you will find the column to be a source of information and inspiration in the fight against pancreatic cancer.

Recent News

Lustgarten Foundation Initiatives

Scientists Shed New Light on Why Pancreatic Cancer Drugs Can Fail

Leading an international team of investigators, Lustgarten Foundation grantee Dr. David Tuveson of Cancer Research UK has discovered a new mechanism that may explain why pancreatic cancer patients are often resistant to gemcitabine. The study was published in the journal Science, and is expected to help scientists develop more effective chemotherapy drugs. Multi-year support from The Lustgarten Foundation has supported Dr. Tuveson in his efforts to analyze his genetically modified mouse model of pancreatic cancer. This model closely resembles the human form of the disease, and as such, is largely resistant to gemcitabine. Using his model, he discovered that pancreatic tumors tend to have poor networks of blood vessels called vasculature, making it more difficult for drugs to reach the tumor.

The study may help to explain why pancreatic cancer does not respond to anti-angiogenic drugs (drugs that starve the tumor by restricting its blood supply), when many other cancers do. Dr. Tuveson furthered his analysis by testing agents that may help facilitate delivery of chemotherapy drugs to the tumor, thereby potentially increasing the effectiveness of the treatments. One compound, in combination with gemcitabine, increased cell death and reduced tumor size in the genetically modified animals. The team believes that using this combination may re-open the door to several new treatments which have, so far, proven disappointing in patient trials for pancreatic cancer due to poor drug delivery. Although future studies will be required to show that this approach is safe to use in humans before the new compound can be added to current cancer treatments, these findings set the stage for exciting follow-up studies.

Studies Supported by Lustgarten Foundation Yield Breakthrough Insights

Two studies funded in part by The Lustgarten Foundation have recently been published that advance the fields of sporadic pancreatic cancer (where there is no genetic link) and familial pancreatic cancer (the form of the disease that runs in families). The first study from the University of Michigan found a gene in 90% of pancreatic cancers that causes the disease to be more aggressive and resistant to therapy. Now that this gene has been identified, scientists can use this information to develop new cancer treatments. The second study, based out of Johns Hopkins University, identified a gene that is altered in familial pancreatic cancers. This discovery will give scientists and clinicians a better tool to predict and monitor people with a family history of pancreatic cancer.

Lustgarten Foundation Supports Development of Pancreatic Cancer Blood Test

The Lustgarten Foundation recently awarded $825,000, payable over three years, to Dr. Bert Vogelstein, who will work to develop a blood test that can be used to detect pancreatic cancer before it causes symptoms (when it is potentially curable). Dr. Vogelstein is the Johns Hopkins investigator who led the Pancreatic Cancer Genome Project. In this new study, Dr. Vogelstein is using state-of-the-art technology developed in his laboratory, which traps DNA circulating in the body and looks for pancreatic cancer genes. This technology has been successfully used to detect colon cancer genes in patients and could lead to a  screening test for pancreatic cancer.

Focused Research Project

In 2009, the Foundation launched a call for applications designed to build upon the findings of the Genome Project. Dr. Fergus Couch of Mayo Clinic will receive $375,000 over the next 18 months for the Precursor Lesion Sequencing Initiative, which will examine genes identified in the Genome Project in 40 tumor samples representing the earliest stages of pancreatic cancer. Identifying these changes opens the door to developing earlier detection screening methods and more effective, targeted cancer therapies.

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