Overlooked No More: How This Group is Funding Research on Pancreatic Cancer

  David Litman/Shutterstock

 David Litman/Shutterstock

It’s a heartbreaking truth that the survival rates for pancreatic cancer have not improved much over the past few decades. Pancreatic cancer is one of the toughest cancers out there, and as far as funding is concerned, it’s also one of the most overlooked. Public funding for medical research is an endless battle over scarce resources and there is never enough to go around. Funders often give to fight the diseases that affect the greatest number of people. While the estimated number of new cases of pancreatic cancer in the United States is around 50,000 to 54,000 annually, it comes in last on the National Cancer Institute’s list of common cancers. However, pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the disease, with an average relative one-year survival rate of just 20 percent and a five-year relative survival rate of 7 percent.

The lack of funding dollars and dismal survival rates have left pancreatic cancer sufferers and their loved ones no choice but to raise their collective voices and hustle hard to bring awareness and new money into the mix. For Pamela Acosta Marquardt, that moment came when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1996.

After her mother passed, she discovered that there were precious few resources dedicated to the disease, so Marquardt co-founded the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) along with Paula Kim and Terry Lierman.

We've reported on PanCAN before, noting that by 2015, its annual revenue had grown to around $36 million. It had also raked in some major donations like a $15 million gift from entrepreneur and philanthropist Skip Viragh’s foundation. Viragh lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2003. Other supporters include the Fredman Family Foundation, AbbVie, and the Celgene Corporation.

Related: Why Millions in New Research Grants Are Flowing for a Deadly But Overlooked Cancer

Those donations not only allow PanCAN to continue operating its own outreach and support programs; they also advance one of the most crucial facets of the group’s mission—double the pancreatic cancer survival rate by 2020. To achieve those ends, the organization has been steadily increasing the amount of money dedicated to scientific research, which was up by about 40 percent in 2016. 

According to Julie Fleshman, president and CEO of PanCAN, the organization has broken new ground this year. For the first time in its history, it requested grant applications “focused on high-impact early detection and precision medicine projects leading to new screening and treatment options.”

Of the recent grants awarded through its Research Grants program, nearly half support work in fields of precision medicine and early detection. Here are a few highlights: Gloria Peterson of the Mayo Clinic received an Early Detection Targeted Grant for her work with pancreatic cancer biomarkers. Yu-Xiao Yang of the University of Pennsylvania also received an Early Detection grant for his work in predicting pancreatic cancer in new onset diabetes. And Anirban Maitra of the MD Anderson Cancer Center received a grant to support his work optimizing biomarker combinations for early detection of pancreatic cancer.

Related: A Big Investment to Change the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Treatment Paradigm

PanCAN’s 2017 peer-reviewed research grants competition resulted in 17 grants totaling $4.9 million. The grants were awarded to 21 researchers at 12 institutions across the county, some of whom were first-time grantees. According to the press release, those new grantees are an “encouraging sign that the pancreatic cancer research community is continuing to grow.” And if we know anything about PanCAN is that it will do whatever it takes to continue that momentum.