We spoke to a leading researcher for World Pancreatic Cancer Day
Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that has seen very little change in survival rates over time. It is expected that only 1% of pancreatic cancer patients will survive 10 years after diagnosis – the same percentage that was expected in the 1970s. Many cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed late because patients don’t tend to show any symptoms until much later on, usually once the disease has spread to other organs in the body. Today is World Pancreatic Cancer Day and we want to show why it’s so important that more research in carried out for this devastating disease.
We took some time out to chat with Professor Owen Sansom, Director of the Beatson Institute in Glasgow, who is using funding from Worldwide Cancer Research to understand more about the biology of pancreatic cancer to try and uncover new ways to treat it.
What inspired you to work on pancreatic cancer?
Given that this disease has such a bad prognosis it is one where we might be able to move very quickly from basic insights into the clinic. This makes pancreatic cancer research an exciting prospect scientifically but also one that means we might be able to translate our work into patient benefit quickly.
There are also excellent laboratory model systems for pancreatic cancer which means that we can investigate in great detail processes such as metastasis (spread of cancer) as well as test therapies that are show promise as new treatments for pancreatic cancer.
I have also been lucky during my career to work with some fantastic clinicians and the more I engaged with them and what was happening in the hospital setting, the more I wanted to address key questions in this devastating disease.
How important is it that basic or lab-based research continues to be funded?
It’s a no-brainer. We need new treatments for pancreatic cancer and the only way to find these is to understand the biology of this disease better. This is the type of knowledge that comes from scientists in the lab doing the ground-work that sets the stage for drug development or new tests to diagnose patients. Particularly for pancreatic cancer, we need to understand the molecular communication signals that tell pancreatic cancer cells to grow and enable the disease to progress. We also need to find out more about how tumour cells interact with other cells nearby that support the growth of a tumour.
What do you hope to achieve with your funding from Worldwide Cancer Research?
We are looking at a gene called Myc, which is the instructions a cell uses to build a protein that plays a crucial role in helping cells divide and survive. The Myc gene is overexpressed or amplified in many pancreatic cancers, which means that the cells produce too much of the protein, aiding the formation of pancreatic tumours. Research has shown that Myc actually controls a wide range of cellular processes so we want to understand more about what Myc does so then we can potentially find if there are any ways to target these processes for treatment.
What do you think are the most exciting new areas of research for pancreatic cancer?
There has been a massive interest recently in trying to characterise different subtypes of pancreatic cancer based on their molecular and genetic features. This is really important because some treatments might only work on certain people because of a slight difference in the characteristic of their tumour. Research has so far identified four distinct types with key features that might allow for the most effective treatment to be given to an individual patient. This concept is currently be tested by a large UK collaboration, called “Precision Panc”, that brings researchers and clinicians together to work on a single problem. By joining forces and engaging the whole community I think this platform is very exciting and should provide fundamental new insights into the disease as well as trialling a number of innovative new drugs.