By Anthony Frasca
After multiple Emmy award-winning “Jeopardy!” host, Alex Trebek, announced that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the news has drawn attention to the disease and raised questions related to the latest advances in diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer.
Dr. Aaron Sasson, director of the Pancreatic Cancer Center at Stony Brook University and chief of the Surgical Oncology Division, said little has changed when it comes to a doctor’s ability to diagnose the cancer any earlier.
“But we have made improvements in imaging of pancreatic cancer,” he said. “That is, the quality of CT scans and MRIs has improved over the years.”
Kerri Kaplan, president and CEO of the Lustgarten Foundation, said the disease has been “notoriously difficult” to detect and treat. The organization is dedicated to pancreatic cancer research.
“Although great strides are being made to detect pancreatic cancer earlier, this disease has few warning signs and vague symptoms that may range from back pain, fatigue and loss of appetite, amongst others,” she said in an email.
Kaplan added, “Even when there are early signs and symptoms, they may easily be attributed to other illnesses. Because of this, patients are often diagnosed when the cancer is at an advanced stage or has spread to other organs — making them ineligible to undergo surgery, which is the best chance at long-term survival.”
According to the foundation, pancreatic cancer research is moving faster than ever before. The nonprofit is funding a range of innovative projects including artificial intelligence in a partnership with Pancreatic Cancer Collective to use computational approaches to identifying high-risk pancreatic cancer populations, and CancerSEEK, which is an early detection initiative that uses blood testing to identify eight different types of cancer including pancreatic cancer.
Other Lustgarten projects include Dr. David Tuveson of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory leading a personalized approach to medicine called organoids for personalized therapy — a three-dimensional cell culture system which reproduces a patient’s tumor to test it repeatedly with different drugs. This approach will enable researchers to determine how a pancreatic cancer patient will respond to various treatments. And with an improved imaging and early detection project, scientists from a broad range of disciplines focus on the use of computers to recognize patterns in medical imaging with the goal of finding tumors when they are otherwise undetectable by the human eye.
Also, as a result of Lustgarten-funded research, the U.S. Food & Drug Association recently approved Keytruda as the first immunotherapy treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer patients whose tumors have a unique genetic mutation.
“In the last 10 years our understanding of pancreatic cancer has significantly improved,” Sasson said. “I think we are on the cusp of something remarkable in the next couple of years coming out with regards to treatment. Our understanding of the genetics the biology and immunotherapy of pancreatic cancer, all those things are going to be realized, I’m hopeful, in the next couple of years.”
The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 9 percent according to the American Cancer Society. Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Improvements in survival rates for pancreatic cancer are challenging because nearly half of the cancers are not detected until they are in advanced stages.