Houston researchers closer to unraveling mysteries of pancreatic cancer

Almost 60,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year. Unfortunately only 10% survive it longer than five years, but researchers at Baylor College of Medicine are working hard to change those devastating statistics, by performing a groundbreaking and first of its kind study to help detect it earlier.

Many high profile people, like Alex Trebek, have brought attention to pancreatic cancer, but unfortunately that’s because they lost their battle to it. It also claimed the lives of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Civil Rights icon and Congressman John Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze, and actor Michael Landon, just to name a few. All of that attention may be helping finally fuel funding to figure out and better treat the complicated disease.

Dr. William Fisher is the principal investigator and professor and Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs of a new study at the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine.

"My entire career has been focused on pancreatic cancer, but I think this work will be the most significant," exclaims Dr. Fisher.  He goes on to say, "It’s an exciting time to be doing this research! Pancreas cancer is the worst cancer, the survival is the poorest of all cancers and the big reason for that is that we diagnose it too late and the symptoms are very vague and by the time the patient presents the horse is basically out of the barn and the patient is not a candidate for surgery. So this group of investigators is a big group of very talented people. I feel very fortunate to be part of this group. We're studying ways to diagnose it earlier, so we're looking at populations of patients that are a little bit higher risk. One group is patients that get diagnosed with diabetes over the age of 50, and so we're studying a very large group of patients," explains Dr. Fisher.

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They get this opportunity, thanks to a $2.4 million, five-year grant renewal of the Consortium for the study from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

As researchers take a look of what’s fueling fire in the pancreas so-to-speak, they’re closely looking at inflammation, which is a known part of cancer.

"One of the things that our group in particular is contributing to the larger work is studying the microbiome. It's an interesting concept. We know that there are bacteria and viruses all over the surface of our bodies, inside the bodies of the GI tract. And this is normally the microbiome, a normal part of everyone. When a disease comes along like COVID, you know that’s a virus that attacks the body and it's not supposed to be there, but these bacteria that are normally there, we're studying them now and learning that they have a role in health and disease. We're hoping by studying samples of saliva and stool that we can look at the bacteria that are there and get a tip off, as to which patients are going to develop pancreas cancer later," explains Dr. Fisher.

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At this point, Dr. Fisher says only 15% of patients qualify for surgery to remove their tumor, since patients do usually find out too late to get surgical help.

"That's really the thing that this whole group is trying to accomplish, so that study of the microbiome is one piece of a very big puzzle where we're looking at blood samples and urine samples and all other kinds of ways to hopefully find one that works," states Dr. Fisher.

He says they also hope this information will help lead to prevention of the typically terminal disease. "It has been shown in other studies. So, if you know there's a change in the microbiome, that is a tip off that pancreas cancer is developing, then perhaps you can intervene and restore the normal microbiome. This is what people do with probiotics to restore their intestinal health, so it's the same sort of concept," explains Dr. Fisher.

Doctors say being overweight, eating processed meats and sugary drinks raise your risk of pancreatic cancer, as well as smoking, second hand smoke, and a family history of the disease.

Click here for more information about the study. Click here for more information about pancreatic cancer.