Pancreatic cancer awareness month marks gains in early detection
November is pancreatic cancer awareness month. Pancreatic cancer is uncommon, but its diagnosis is commonly a death sentence. The disease that claimed actor Patrick Swayze’s life was thought to kill quickly, but new research suggests that pancreatic cancer spreads slowly over years and there have been recent breakthroughs in early detection and treatment.
Fighting pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer affects about 43,140 people in the U.S. each year, according to the American Cancer Society. About 36,800 of those people are killed by it. Those numbers represent just 3 percent of cancer cases in the U.S. Research to detect and treat pancreatic cancer accounts for less than 2 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s budget. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has announced a three-year goal to raise $170 million in public funds and $25 million from private sources for research. The organization is also lobbying Congress to pass the Pancreatic Research and Education Act, which would require the NCI to develop a strategy to fight pancreatic cancer.
Breakthroughs in early detection
Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect because the disease has no symptoms until it’s too late. By the time it’s diagnosed a patient has about two years to live on average because the cancer has spread from the pancreas to other vital organs. However, new advances in early detection were announced in the scientific journal Nature last month. By tracking the mutations in pancreatic cancer cells, scientists discovered that it takes at least 15 years for pancreatic cancer to develop from the first cancerous cell into a killer disease. Their findings suggest ways to detect the disease at a more treatable stage.
Theranostic nanoparticle treatment
A novel treatment for pancreatic cancer using nanotechnology is being researched by a group of scientists from three universities in Texas funded by a $1.8 million NCI grant. The treatment, called “theranostics,” uses nanoparticles sheathed in a gold “nanoshell” that converts light into heat that kills cancer cells. The nanoparticles can also be infused with a fluorescent dye to make tumors show up more clearly in MRI scans. Researchers are betting that theranostic nanoparticles could be a breakthrough in detection and treatment of pancreatic cancer and cancer in other forms as well.