Over the last 40 years, survival has improved for most cancers but not for Pancreatic Cancer. This is in large part due to Pancreatic Cancer being underfunded, receiving only 3% of overall cancer research funding. There is currently no standard diagnostic tool or established early detection method for Pancreatic Cancer. Most Pancreatic Cancer patients are diagnosed at Stage IV resulting in the lowest survival rate of all cancers.
Early detection of Pancreatic Cancer is difficult because:
This is due to access to more treatment options, including surgery. For eligible patients, surgery is the best option for long-term survival of Pancreatic Cancer. It can increase a patient’s survival by about ten-fold.
Recognizing the importance of diagnosing pancreatic cancer at an early stage, when patients have the best chance for long-term survival, the FCSP Foundation identified four early detection research initiatives to support based on their potential to change the lives of patients and their family members.
These initiatives—CancerSEEK, GENERATE, FELIX project and CompCyst—are spearheaded by researchers funded by the Lustgarten Foundation, the world’s largest private funder of Pancreatic Cancer research. The results of these initiatives have been positive and The FCSP Foundation will continue to partner with Lustgarten Foundation on new initiatives including the LABS Program.
Additionally, the FCSP Foundation has also identified VCU's Massey Cancer Center, a Richmond-based cancer treatment center, and will fund research and treatments for Pancreatic Cancer through the Geoffrey R. Shudtz Chair in Pancreatic Research.
Lustgarten Advancing Breakthrough Science (LABS) Program enables the top institutions to build collaborative teams led by the best researchers to address the hardest and most pressing questions in pancreatic cancer research. Through the LABS program, the FCSP Foundation is funding the best researchers with strong track records at institutions where the environment and resources allow teams to address significant research questions. This unique program has attracted top talent to pancreatic cancer and allows the LABs to pursue research in ways that would be impossible with traditional funding mechanisms. Each LAB is pioneering complementary programs in early detection. The LABS sites are: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (Dr. David Tuveson), Dana-Farber Cancer (Dr. Brian Wolpin), Johns Hopkins (Dr. Bert Vogelstein and Dr. Elizabeth Jaffee), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Dr. Tyler Jacks), Salk Institute (Dr. Reuben Shaw). Scientists at the LABS sites frequently collaborate, sharing new capabilities and specialized information to further the pancreatic cancer research field and to give patients the best chance for survival and quality of life.
Johns Hopkins’ Elizabeth Jaffee, MD is spearheading the first-ever vaccine trial aimed at preventing pancreatic cancer in healthy individuals with an elevated risk for the disease based on their genetics or family history of pancreatic cancer. This Phase 1 study is currently enrolling 25 participants and will measure safety and immune response to a vaccine against mutant KRAS proteins, the most common driver of pancreatic cancer. The mutant form of the KRAS gene is one of the first to turn normal cells into pre-cancer and then cancer. Pre-cancerous lesions in the pancreas take almost 11 years to become cancerous, offering a tremendous window of opportunity. If deemed safe and effective, the next step will be to determine if immunity against this mutated protein is able to delay or prevent pancreatic cancer.
Additionally, at least 10% of all funds raised in 2022 will go to the VCU Massey Cancer Center to be used toward Pancreatic Cancer research. VCU Massey Cancer Center's Pancreas Program is Virginia’s leading resource for Pancreatic Cancer care and the first of its kind in the Richmond area.
At VCU Massey Cancer Center, the pancreas cancer care team consists of national leaders in cancer care and research, including Jose Trevino, M.D., Massey’s surgeon in chief and division chair for surgical oncology at VCU. Massey’s patient-centered, multidisciplinary approach treats the whole patient. Trevino was recruited to Massey in November 2020, and is conducting a series of studies, including research examining inequities in cancer, including pancreatic cancer, prevention and outcomes. He also collaborates on research with Said Sebti, Ph.D., associate director for basic research at Massey and the Lacy Family Chair in Cancer Research, to find new and better treatments for pancreatic cancer.
Led by Bert Vogelstein, MD, FCSP-funded scientists developed CancerSEEK, a powerful blood test capable of detecting the early presence of multiple cancers, including pancreatic cancer, and identifying where in the body the cancer began. A study published in Science (February 28, 2018) found that using samples from patients with pancreatic cancer, CancerSEEK has a specificity of greater than 99% and a sensitivity of 72% in patients with cancer earlier staged cancers, 1-3. In 2019, Thrive Earlier Detection Corp., founded to commercialize CancerSEEK, completed a prospective study of 10,000 healthy patients. Results reported in 2020 showed CancerSEEK more than doubled (25% - 52%) the number of cancers discovered in individuals with no prior history of cancer. In 2021, Exact Sciences, a diagnostic company specializing in the detection of early-stage cancers acquired the rights to CancerSEEK and is preparing to initiate a 100,000-person registration trial as a step toward FDA approval. New technologies are still being developed to improve the test’s accuracy before launching the trial scheduled for December 2022.
The GENERATE Study was designed to test people who have a close relative with pancreatic cancer that was caused by an inherited mutation in a gene. Genetic counseling was provided to at-risk family members to make them aware of options for detecting cancer early at a curable stage. The October 8, 2021, edition of the scientific journal Cancer Prevention Research included preliminary data from the study. GENERATE showed great promise for the use of remote tools, such as at-home testing and virtual genetic education and support to reach those at increased risk regardless of proximity to comprehensive cancer treatment facilities. Those who took part in the GENERATE Study are also candidates for screening programs including the recently launched prevention vaccine clinical trial.
A team of Johns Hopkins researchers, led by Elliot Fishman, MD, is harnessing the power of machine learning, or artificial intelligence, to detect tiny, early-stage tumors on CT Scans. Termed The Felix Project, named for Harry Potter’s Felix Felicis, also known as “Liquid Luck.” making the drinker lucky and turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, the goal of the program also is to provide extraordinary results through research, technology, (and maybe even a bit of luck). Felix uses data from thousands of scans to teach computers to detect tumors small enough to be missed by even the most experienced radiologists.
The Comprehensive Cyst (CompCyst) test combines clinical, radiological, genetic, and protein marker information to distinguish if pancreatic cysts, which can be common within the general population, can develop into pancreatic cancer or remain as benign cysts. CompCyst will help determine the cyst type and evaluate whether surgery or surveillance is the best course of action. Johns Hopkins has entered into a confidential partnership with a major player in the AI space to help move the Felix and CompCyst projects forward. More details can be provided once the collaboration is public.
Additionally, at least 5% of all funds raised in 2020 will go to the VCU Massey Cancer Center to be used toward Pancreatic Cancer research. VCU Massey Cancer Center's Pancreas Program is Virginia’s leading resource for Pancreatic Cancer care, and the first of its kind in the Richmond area.