This year, nearly 600 British Columbians will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although it is the 10th most common cancer in Canada, it is the fourth leading cause of cancer death after lung, breast in women, colorectal, and prostate in men.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect at an early stage and is often resistant to treatment.

The latest statistics show slight improvement in the five-year survival rate from eight per cent to nine per cent, but 75 per cent of people with pancreatic cancer won’t survive the first year after diagnosis. Unless more effective treatment strategies are found, the number of deaths from pancreatic cancer in Canada is expected to double by 2030.

Donors and community partners continue to help drive funding for pancreatic cancer research, including the 10th annual Cypress Challenge, which took place in August. Since 2008, more than $2 million has been raised through this annual bike event, hosted by Glotman Simpson Cycling. Money raised benefits leading-edge research at the BC Cancer Agency and Pancreas Centre BC.

Founded in 2012, Pancreas Centre BC is a unique partnership between the BC Cancer Agency, Vancouver Coastal Health and the University of British Columbia. Thanks to donor support, the centre has developed into a national leader in pancreatic cancer research, with a team of talented researchers employing a multi-disciplinary approach to discovering new treatments and diagnostics.

Co-directors Drs. Dan Renouf and David F. Schaeffer, and their colleagues, are determined to improve the global understanding of this elusive disease and bring hope to patients and their families. Priorities include examining full genome sequencing of tumours to identify the cause of gene mutations, developing new treatments, improving existing treatments, and improving early detection.

Gene sequencing finds hereditary link and searches for effective treatments

Thanks to the support of an anonymous donor, Pancreas Centre BC established the Biobank and Genetic Evaluation Program for Patients with Advanced Pancreatic Cancer in 2015. The main focus of the Biobank Program is to determine genetic changes associated with pancreatic cancer. Current aims include collecting pancreatic cancer tissue from patients with advanced disease, making metastatic cancer tissue available to researchers through the biobank, and identifying genetic changes associated with advanced pancreatic cancer.

Since its inception, the biobank has collected more than 325 pancreatic tumour samples. Those tissue samples will be used in the ongoing effort to root out the molecular causes driving advanced pancreatic cancer.

Although the risk factors for pancreatic cancer are not well known, it is known that there’s a genetic link to the disease through BRCA1/2 and other gene mutations, which can lead to an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer for some individuals and families. By identifying a hereditary risk, BC Cancer experts can help stop pancreatic cancer before it starts.

The Biobank Program also helps support a multi-site clinical trial called PanGen (Prospectively Defining Metastatic Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma Subtypes by Comprehensive Genomic Analysis).

PanGen is an innovative study that involves sequencing metastatic tumours in the hopes of better understanding the pathways that are driving growth and identifying more effective treatment. Researchers closely monitor patients from the time of diagnosis through treatment, genetically sequencing tumours and evaluating treatment response with regular blood tests and imaging.

Research Focus: Four key areas of investigation 2016-2018


Genomics

By studying genetic information from both tumour and normal tissue, doctors will be able to make treatment decisions based on the unique characteristics of a person’s tumour.

Molecular pathology

This emerging discipline focuses on the study and diagnosis of cancer through the examination of molecules within organs and tissues. Current projects are seeking to determine possible treatments and understand the features that are indicative of poor prognosis.

Drug development and therapy

Researchers are seeking to identify the feasibility of targeting pancreatic cancer with novel inhibitors. In addition, they are screening potential chemotherapy targets to determine their potential for treatment.

Health services and outcomes

In-depth questionnaires are used to provide significant future health services research opportunities.

Studies of biobank samples to assist screening and personalized treatment options

Early detection of pancreatic cancer is a key cornerstone of research for Pancreas Centre BC. One of the goals is to develop a blood test to detect pancreatic cancer earlier. Better understanding and subtyping (finding smaller groups with shared characteristics) of metastatic pancreatic cancer will aid researchers in developing new avenues for early detection testing.

The Biobank Program continues to build a robust bank of specimens for pancreatic cancer research projects. The samples collected facilitate research aimed at investigating the cause, progression and treatment of the disease. By applying personalized genomic analysis to pancreatic cancer tumours, the PanGen team hopes to identify unique biomarkers that will result in more effective treatments.

Researchers are now working to fully understand how pancreatic cancer develops and progresses, uncover potential screening methods for those predisposed to pancreatic cancer and develop innovative treatments. The time is now for energy, resources and optimism in pancreatic cancer.

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