Expert Anticipates Dramatic Advances in Pancreatic Cancer

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Murray Korc, M.D., of the IUPUI Pancreatic Cancer Signature Center, said that the future holds drastic changes for the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Where we are with the use of immunotherapy for melanoma treatment now is where the field is going for pancreatic cancer in the next five or ten years, according to Murray Korc, M.D. However, he admits that there must be some significant strides in research to get to that point.

“We’ve made significant inroads in other cancers, so pancreatic cancer is really going to start to stand out,” he said.

Korc is the the Myles Brand Professor of Cancer Research at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis and director of the IUPUI Pancreatic Cancer Signature Center. In an interview with CURE, he discussed research being done — both in his center and throughout the world – that will ultimately lead to improved outcomes for people with this disease, which is currently the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

“I started studying pancreatic cancer in 1983,” Korc said. “In those days, only 3 to 4 percent of patients survived five years or longer. Today, it’s about 7 to 8 percent, which is a big improvement, but still nothing to brag about. It’s still awful.”

One reason why pancreatic cancer prognoses tend to be worse than other tumor types is that the majority of pancreatic cancer is caught in later stages. The pancreas is a “more hidden” organ, according to Korc, and difficult to non-invasively image. Even when it is imaged, lesions sometimes do not appear. This leads to a delay in diagnosis.

Korc said that once diagnosed, only about 20 percent of patients are suitable for attempts of resection.

The number of patients with pancreatic cancer in the U.S. may also be increasing alongside the rates of obesity and diabetes—two factors that often go hand-in-hand with one another and also lead to increased risk.

“On top of that, there’s a subgroups of individuals who get pancreatic cancer-induced diabetes,” Korc said. “The idea is that the cancer makes resistance factors that make the body resistant to insulin and the diabetes may present itself two or three years before diagnosis, or even six months to one year before diagnosis. If we were astute enough to figure out what is going on there, we could use that as a marker for early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.”

All of these issues — and more – are being tackled at the IUPUI Pancreatic Cancer Signature Center, which is collaborating with other research centers around the world, contributing to recent “explosions in knowledge” about the disease.

“That explosion of knowledge will allow, within the next several years, to have precision medicine approaches so that you’d really be able to target the right pathways in the right patients and achieve much better results than we can today,” Korc said.

Korc also has hope for immunotherapy in the treatment of the disease, though it is currently not working well for pancreatic cancer.

“There are some good people in that field of research. So probably within the next 10 years, there will be a higher cure rate because of early diagnosis and a much higher ability to intervene early and prolong survival with improved quality of life.”

Ensuring that patients have a good quality of life, regardless of what stage of their diagnosis they are in, is something that Korc sees as very important—both on a human and a clinical level.

“Having cancer is bad enough, but then having all these complications can really interfere with things. It can also interfere with response to therapy,” Korc said. “So if we prolong life and improve quality of life, I think within a decade there will be dramatic results in this area.”