Ask The Experts: Pancreatic Cancer Research and Treatment During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In May, which happens to be Cancer Research Month, we co-hosted an Instagram Live with Stand Up To Cancer featuring our Chief Medical Advisor and Deputy Director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Elizabeth Jaffee, and our Chief Scientist and Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Cancer Center, Dr. David Tuveson. The experts answered questions submitted in advance from our pancreatic cancer community, such as how COVID-19 is affecting pancreatic cancer research, what precautions pancreatic cancer patients should take, and how doctors and hospitals are treating patients during the pandemic.

If you weren’t able to tune in to the Instagram Live, read on for the first in a three-part series on the discussion.

How have researchers been spending their time during the pandemic? What has COVID-19 taught them about pancreatic cancer research?

The coronavirus has had a drastic impact on how people live their lives and how workplaces operate while keeping people safe. The pandemic forced many researchers to reframe how their skills as cancer scientists could be applied to help patients during the pandemic. Dr. Jaffee is a world-class clinical trialist— a researcher who leads the study of a drug, procedure, or medical device to determine its safety and effectiveness in preventing, screening for, diagnosing or treating  disease in people and to improve quality of life— who runs a laboratory and large clinical trials. As companies race to formulate a vaccine, a clinical trial approach will be needed to ensure it is safe for humans and potent enough to combat the virus.

“What I’ve seen is almost a flash mob mentality amongst the scientists and the clinicians in our country and in the world in a productive fashion. We didn’t show up for a party. We showed up for a problem,” said Dr. Tuveson. To that end, Dr. Tuveson notes that while researchers are lending a hand to fight the coronavirus, they haven’t stopped thinking about pancreatic cancer. “We’ve actually come up with new ideas while struggling to tackle the coronavirus, as odd as that may sound, because we’re talking to other scientists and other doctors who we don’t usually talk to. We’re learning new approaches from them, which are innovative. And in trying to develop new ways to diagnose or treat the coronavirus, we’re actually coming up with new ways to diagnose and treat pancreas cancer,” said Dr. Tuveson.

How are doctors and hospitals taking care of cancer patients during the pandemic?

Pancreatic cancer doesn’t take a break just because there is a pandemic, so researchers like Dr. Jaffee are still hard at work ensuring patients are receiving the necessary treatment and care, despite the challenges of COVID-19. “We know pancreatic cancer patients can’t wait, so when we get calls from new or current patients, we assess the situation, “ said Dr. Jaffee. “If we feel they can avoid coming into the hospital where they may be at higher risk for contracting COVID, then we recommend other options. For example, we can do teleconferences to discuss their problems and even order medications. We have been setting up our pharmacy to be able to send medications to patients at their home. So this is a way to make things easier,” she noted. In situations where patients must visit the hospital for treatment, Dr. Jaffee stressed every precaution is being taken—from social distancing and protective gear to screening patients at the door and limiting the number of people who can accompany the patient to maintain safety for patients and staff.

What if a patient needs surgery or chemotherapy treatment?

While some surgeries were halted during the pandemic, this was not the case for those with pancreatic cancer. “If you need surgery, we’re still trying to make sure we can do that surgery in a timely fashion because pancreatic cancer patients cannot wait for their treatment,” said Dr. Jaffee. For those already on a chemotherapy regimen, Dr. Jaffee stressed treatment is still ongoing and hospitals have implemented safety measures such as delivering chemotherapy medicine at home, when it is safe to do so.

How have clinical trials been affected by COVID-19?

We learned from Dr. Jaffee that while clinical trial enrollment has slowed during the pandemic, patients who were already in a clinical trial or those who desperately needed access were able to either continue or begin a trial. “This is an unprecedented time and it’s particularly difficult for cancer patients and definitely challenging for pancreatic cancer patients who just cannot wait to have their treatments,” said Dr. Jaffee. In the meantime, researchers have been hard at work to get new clinical trials ready and open for patients to have access to when things begin to resume. Data from trials has continued to be generated, allowing for more collaboration between researchers in the pancreatic cancer community. “We are making many strides in our research efforts in the clinics and lab and we want to make sure that this accelerated progress is not slowed,” said Dr. Jaffee.

While these last few months have been daunting for many—especially for pancreatic cancer patients who needed treatment—Lustgarten researchers have rallied together to continue the progress that’s been made in pancreatic cancer research for patients and their loved ones.

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