By Kat Arney – Cancer Research UK Science Blog.
Right now, the outlook for pancreatic cancer is bleak. Despite heartfelt efforts by researchers, survival has barely shifted over recent decades.
Fewer than three in every 100 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can expect to make it to five years.
It’s a situation that urgently needs to change, and one that we’re particularly focusing on as part of our new research strategy.
Someone who’s trying hard to alter the outlook for patients with the disease is pancreatic cancer expert Professor Andrew Biankin, who works at Cancer Research UK’s Glasgow Centre.
Last year we tempted him away from the sunny weather of Sydney, Australia, to pursue his pioneering work in Scotland’s cooler climes. The decision to tackle such a hard to treat cancer in the first place might seem a little puzzling. So why did he do it?
Determination and change
“It was in the final year of my surgical training in Sydney that I first thought about turning to research. I was working pretty hard, treating patients with diseases of the liver, pancreas, stomach and so on, and felt that I wanted to do something different,” he told us.
And for the patients he saw with pancreatic cancer, things were dismal. In particular, the memory of one patient in particular has always stuck with him – a 39 year old woman with pancreatic cancer.
“She was one of the first patients I treated as a consultant and had the tiniest tumour in her pancreas, about a centimetre across,” he recalls. “The surgery to remove it went well and I was so proud of that operation – I think it was the best operation I’ve ever done.”
Nine months later he saw her again, and all was well.
“But six weeks after that I got a call from the hospital saying the disease had come back. Two months later she died.
“At that point I realised we really didn’t know anything about pancreatic cancer, and throughout my career I’ve been determined to change that,” he says.
And that means understanding why pancreatic cancer develops so quickly.
“It boils down to the biology – it’s an inherently very aggressive disease,” says Biankin. “Often it’s diagnosed so late it makes clinical trials very difficult to do.
“It’s also very diverse – there are probably many types of pancreatic cancer that we haven’t managed to properly distinguish yet. The old model of ‘one size fits all’ is no good if you’re looking at maybe 20 distinct diseases, that all respond in different ways to treatment.”
But back in the 1990s, nobody in Australia was doing research into understanding the disease, not even at Sydney’s prestigious Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
“So I went across the road to the Institute and had a chat with Rob Sutherland, who was director of cancer research there.”
Biankin proposed teaming up to try to make a difference for these patients.
Sutherland’s reaction was memorable. “He looked at me and said: ‘Well, we’ve got a bit of a problem because I don’t know anything about pancreatic cancer, and you don’t know anything about research!’”
That situation was about to change.
Starting from scratch
Biankin started a PhD, and then spent two years at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore before returning to Sydney to focus on a particular puzzle in pancreatic cancer research – the faulty genes that cause the disease, and the underlying differences between patients’ tumours.
Professor Biankin is looking for the genetic ‘spelling mistakes’ that can fuel pancreatic cancer
In particular, Biankin set out to understand why patients respond to treatment differently, as well as looking for new targets for future therapies.
A key player in all this was DNA researcher Sean Grimmond – “My sequencing super-guru”, as Biankin calls him – who pioneered a lot of the DNA sequencing technology in Australia.
In Sydney, Biankin and Grimmond put in a bid to run the pancreatic cancer arm of a large collaborative project called the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC) – and set up the Australian pancreatic cancer genome initiative.
The pair oversaw the mapping and uploading of the complete DNA read-outs for around 400 pancreatic cancers to the ICGC project, making it one of the largest sets of whole genome sequences for any cancer type…read the full blog post.