Potentially lifesaving research is taking place in laboratories across the country. This is especially important in pancreatic cancer, where the survival rates have not changed much in the past 40 years. But today, there is hope. Scientists now have more knowledge and better tools to look at pancreatic cancer from new and promising angles.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network supports this biomedical research by directly funding grants. The organization has awarded $12.7 million to 92 researchers to date. In addition, the organization’s advocacy efforts work to ensure that the federal government continues to support and sustain pancreatic cancer research.

Here are a few examples of new research strategies that are thought to be some of the most promising for finding new treatments for this disease and are the focus of some of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s grant recipients.

Targeting K-ras
Almost all pancreatic cancers have a defect in one key gene, called K-ras, upon which the pancreatic cancer cells depend for growth and survival. So far, finding a way to attack K-ras and block its activity has proven to be exceptionally difficult. But there are a number of investigators who have banded together under a National Cancer Institute-sponsored project to attack this problem head-on, using some very modern tools and ideas. Pancreatic cancer will be one of the first cancers that is likely to benefit from this novel, collaborative approach.

Precision Medicine
In several cancer types--breast, melanoma, and now some lung cancers, for example--researchers have made real advances in what is known as personalized, or “precision,” medicine. This approach involves identifying molecular alterations in the tumor tissue and using a specific drug that could be effective on a tumor with those molecular alterations. To use this approach in pancreatic cancer, several US and international groups are making efforts to sequence the genomes of hundreds of pancreatic tumors. In pilot studies, the genomic information has suggested treatments that would not ordinarily be considered, with some extraordinary responses. Although still early days, the success of this approach in other cancer types suggests that precision medicine may be effective in treating pancreatic cancer, one patient at a time.

Breaking through the Microenvironment
One thing that makes pancreatic cancer so different from other cancers is that the tissue around and through the tumor thickens and makes it difficult for drugs to get into the tumor. This tissue, known as the “microenvironment,” supports and protects the tumor, even from the drugs that are designed to treat it. That means breaking down the surrounding microenvironment could leave the tumor vulnerable and weak, allowing drugs to attacked it more effectively.

Harnessing the Immune System
The body’s natural immune system has perfected ways to attack foreign invaders, such as viruses or bacteria. Cancers in general are able to evade an immune attack, but scientists have found new ways to trick the immune system into recognizing and targeting cancer. Several investigators are looking at how to alert and strengthen the immune system to go after the tumor, as well as weaken the tumor’s ability to hide from the immune system.

There are many compelling stories of innovative ways scientists, many of whom are funded by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, are using modern tools to understand pancreatic cancer, and using this knowledge to find new ways to fight the disease. These investigators bring intelligence, new technologies and skills, and passion to the fight, and are moving us toward the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s goal of doubling survival of pancreatic cancer by 2020. 

Read more here about the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s research grants program and innovative research being done by the organization’s grantees.