Group of men and women discuss pancreatic cancer research at a table over breakfast.

PanCAN staff, grantees and patient advocates together at the AACR special conference, Pancreatic Cancer: Advances in Science and Clinical Care.

Lynn Matrisian, PhD, MBA, chief science officer at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), opened the 2018 American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) pancreatic cancer special conference with a story.

Dr. Akshay Mehta was performing a delicate hand surgery when he felt a wave of nausea and dizziness,” Matrisian told the more than 500 attendees. “His subsequent pancreatic cancer diagnosis at the age of 35 came as a complete shock.”

PanCAN, who served as a lead supporter of the conference along with the Lustgarten Foundation, played a key role in Mehta’s care.

“Akshay’s tumor did not initially respond to chemotherapy,” Matrisian said, “but through PanCAN’s Know Your Tumor® precision medicine service, Akshay learned that his tumor had a very rare – and very actionable – alteration.”

Actionable alterations refer to genetic and protein changes within a patient’s tumor that can impact treatment decisions. And the only way to make discoveries about what features differentiate cancer cells from healthy cells – and which vulnerabilities can be targeted by drugs – is through rigorous scientific and clinical research.

“Patients are counting on us. We need to work together to make urgent progress toward improving patient outcomes,” Matrisian said to a room filled with pancreatic cancer scientists and clinicians from across the globe.

Two women discuss PanCAN’s Know Your Tumor® precision medicine results at AACR conference.

Cassadie Moravek, PanCAN’s associate director of clinical initiatives, discusses the Know Your Tumor poster with Barbara Kenner, PhD, member of PanCAN’s Board of Directors.

Members of PanCAN’s scientific and medical affairs team also presented a poster featuring results from Know Your Tumor, which were recently published in a major scientific journal.

An excellent summary of the current state of pancreatic cancer precision medicine efforts, and the biological and clinical features that should be considered, was provided by two-time PanCAN research grant recipient, Ben Stanger, MD, PhD.

“Dr. Stanger urged the audience to look beyond patients’ genetic and protein changes to determine the best treatment options,” Matrisian said. “He emphasized the importance of learning about the patient’s family history, taking into account the patient’s response to previous treatment types and carefully scrutinizing their diagnostic imaging to look for features that may predict patient outcomes and response to treatment.”

Another session focused on immunotherapy, enlisting the patient’s immune system to recognize and attack their tumor cells.

Vinod Balachandran, MD, a surgical oncologist and member of the David M. Rubenstein Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, described the elegant work he and colleagues conducted to learn that long-term pancreatic cancer survivors had different types of immune cells, and differently behaving immune cells, compared to patients who rapidly succumb to the disease.

This information can help guide tailored immunotherapy approaches depending on the patient’s immune cell profile.

Speakers also discussed the stroma, or dense tissue that surrounds and infiltrates pancreatic tumors. Sunil Hingorani, MD, PhD, the Raisbeck Endowed Chair for Pancreatic Research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, spoke about efforts to break down the stroma to enhance drug delivery to the tumor. Hingorani is a two-time PanCAN research grant recipient and a member of the organization’s esteemed Scientific and Medical Advisory Board (SMAB).

“Dr. Hingorani and colleagues’ laboratory findings have now been translated to clinical trials to determine whether breaking down the stroma can improve the effectiveness of treatments,” Matrisian said.

Beyond treatment, the AACR pancreatic cancer conference also featured presentations about disease genetics, improving imaging, biomarker studies and more.

Fergus Couch, PhD, professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the Mayo Clinic, described his recent findings, in partnership with PanCAN grantee and SMAB member, Gloria Petersen, PhD, that pancreatic cancer patients have a similar rate of germline (inherited) mutations, regardless of whether they have a family history of the disease or other types of cancer.

“Drs. Couch and Petersen’s findings have important implications on the types of genetic tests that patients – and their family members – should undergo,” Matrisian said.

On the topic of biomarkers, which are defined as substances in the body that can be measured, researchers are seeking to discover biological clues that can indicate the presence of disease in its earlier, more treatable stages, as well as biomarkers that can be monitored to assess disease progression.

Included in the biomarkers session was PanCAN grantee Kenneth Zaret, PhD, the Joseph Leidy Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the Perlman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania.

Zaret spoke about his team’s efforts to look at levels of two biomarkers, CA19-9 and thrombospondin-2, to potentially detect the disease earlier in individuals who are at high risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

Finally, the conference concluded with a panel of experts speaking about the design and implementation of pancreatic cancer clinical trials.

Bookending the meeting, Matrisian sat on the prestigious panel and provided PanCAN’s perspective on the clinical trial landscape and opportunities for improvement.

“We’ve already overcome some major challenges to bringing precision medicine to pancreatic cancer patients and improving clinical trial design,” Matrisian said, “but the system is still fragmented.”

Echoing her opening remarks, Matrisian called for the attendees of the meeting to work together to design and run clinical trials based on rigorous laboratory data and keeping the patients’ needs and characteristics in mind.

“Together, we can double pancreatic cancer survival by 2020 – and then we’ll work to double it again, and again.”

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