Pancreatic cancer: You don’t want it. It's identified by the United States Congress as one of the two worst cancers to get. Conventional treatments of surgery and chemotherapy do little to slow the cancer’s growth. Even with treatment, most patients live only about six months after diagnosis.
Can philanthropy provide not just needed funding, but perhaps influence the supply of major research grants from the federal government itself?
While we hear about breakthroughs in other cancers from time to time, pancreatic cancer treatment hasn’t significantly evolved in three decades. Reasons for this staggeringly slow progress include the complexity of the disease coupled with low clinical trial enrollment rates, a dearth of researchers studying the disease, and lack of funding. Here, we look at three foundations determined to change the course of research and ultimately treatment.
The Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research backs scientists and clinicians through its Seed Grant Award program to test innovative ideas for improving diagnosis as well as developing early detection methods for the disease. Established by Agi Hirshberg, whose husband Ronald died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 54, the Hirshberg Foundation began by funding two projects at University of California, Los Angeles. The Ronald S. Hirshberg Translational Pancreatic Cancer Research Laboratory and the Ronald S. Hirshberg Chair in Translational Pancreatic Cancer Research were funded with a commitment to support the research programs until National Institutes of Health grant recognition became available.
The intent of the Seed Grant Award program is to “provide start-up funding for scientists and clinicians to approach novel concepts and breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer.” According to Agi Hirshberg, president and founder of the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, the program aims to give investigators the opportunity explore new approaches to this serious disease.
Taking on the silent killer
Because pancreatic cancer does not cause symptoms in its early stages, it’s often not detected until the later stages, making treatment more difficult and boosting mortality. Two seed grant recipients, David Wong from UCLA and Gary Xiao from the Dalian University of Technology in China, will collaborate to develop and advance early detection methods. These researchers have reportedly made significant strides in this area.
Xiao has shown that analyzing the type and amount of very small bits of RNA (called micro RNA, or miRNA for short) in a blood sample “can detect early changes in a cell's function suggestive of pancreatic cancer, developing long before any symptoms appear.”
Wong's work has shown that specific gene mutations can reliably predict the development of pancreatic cancer even before the actual tumor becomes large enough to be detected.
The need for new therapies
There are currently no effective treatments for patients with advanced pancreatic cancer who are ineligible for surgery, a prognosis that unfortunately represents the majority of diagnoses. Pancreatic cancer is significantly more resistant to chemotherapy in comparison to other cancer types, leaving patients with fewer treatment options.
This may finally change. Last month, the Pancreatic Cancer Collective—a strategic partnership of the Lustgarten Foundation and Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C)—awarded a total of $7 million in first-round New Therapies Challenge grants to seven teams of cancer researchers to explore new pancreatic cancer treatments. Each team will receive up to $1 million in initial funding, with $4 million per team for clinical studies to the most successful projects in the second round. These teams are the first projects funded under the Pancreatic Cancer Collective launched this spring to accelerate pancreatic cancer research and improve patient outcomes for pancreatic cancer.
These grants are intended to accelerate the most hopeful research. The seven teams funded in this first round of the New Therapies Challenge will conduct their research for the next 14 months, reporting their results to the collective and the Joint Scientific Advisory Committee (JSAC) that selected these teams. The second round of funding of $4 million per team will support clinical studies of the most promising teams from the first round.
"We are in a very exciting place right now for pancreatic cancer research," said David A. Tuveson, Lustgarten's chief scientist and director of the cancer center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the co-scientific leader of the collective. "We're bringing together insights from immunology, targeted therapy, genomics, modeling and other fields, and we're going to find out what should go forward to clinical studies. We are very optimistic that we can make some real progress."
There’s even more to come
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) is accepting applications for its prestigious research grants from scientists who want to advance their pancreatic cancer research studies. This year, two types of grants are available.
PanCAN’s 2019 Catalyst Grant supports junior faculty to conduct pancreatic cancer research and establish a successful career path in the field through a $500,000 award over three years. Proposed research may be basic, translational, clinical or epidemiological in nature and must have direct applicability and relevance to pancreatic cancer. This sort of award represents one of philanthropy’s most important roles: helping to start the careers of younger researchers, who tend to have a hard time raising major research grants. Without early-career support, there’s a real danger that promising researchers will drop out of important fields for lack of funding.
Second, PanCAN’s 2019 Translational Research Grant will fund high priority pancreatic cancer research poised for translation into clinical testing in patients. It’s a $500,000 award over two years. To be eligible for a Translational Research Grant, the research project should aim to identify novel targets and approaches to the treatment of pancreatic cancer or understand and circumvent treatment resistance. Translational research that advances potential treatments from the lab to the bedside is critically important, yet funding opportunities for this stage of work are often tougher to obtain. It’s another area where private philanthropy can make a huge difference to both researchers and patients.
Even more good news?
Private funding has always been pivotal to pancreatic cancer research. Despite its prevalence and lethality, federal funding has lagged in comparison to other cancers. But the landscape is slowly changing. Thanks to PanCAN’s advocacy, federal funding in 2016 for pancreatic cancer research increased 22 percent, to $152 million, according to the latest data released by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
PanCAN and its army of volunteer advocates who changed history with the passage of the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act (RCRA) five years ago remain relentless in their efforts to increase federal cancer research funding year-over-year. The $27 million increase is the largest annual increase in NCI funding for the disease. Pancreatic cancer may soon be a much more manageable disease.