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The Future of Pancreatic Cancer: A Conversation with Medical Oncologist Mark O'Hara, MD

Dr. Mark O'Hara standing with arms crossed and smiling

Pancreatic cancer is scary - it doesn't produce many clear symptoms in its early stages and has a low five-year survival rate. But Penn Medicine is exploring a new frontier with immunotherapy, which may offer hope to current and future pancreatic cancer patients.

We sat down with Mark H. O'Hara, MD, medical oncologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, to learn more about his work with pancreatic cancer patients and immunotherapy research. Dr. O'Hara explains how he's developing new therapies, what keeps him motivated — and his hope for the future of pancreatic cancer.

What's the focus of your research?

I focus on developing new therapies for gastrointestinal malignancies, particularly studying immunotherapy in pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is traditionally thought to be resistant to immunotherapy, so much of my research is in new immune-modulating therapies and combining immunotherapy with other forms of treatment.

What inspired your focus on pancreatic cancer treatment?

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer has a poor prognosis, and though we have seen some improvement in treatment options, we still have a long road to improve outcomes. The ability to bring novel therapies to this devastating disease and help patients and families during such a difficult time is incredibly rewarding.

What does your average day look like?

My lab is the clinic, and there I see patients on standard of care therapies and on clinical trials. Based on my patients and their disease, I work to find new ideas for trials. On my non-clinic days, I may see clinical trial patients in between collaborating with basic scientists and translational researchers at Penn.

How has your time at Penn fueled your research?

I came to Penn as an oncology fellow in 2012 and joined the faculty in 2015. Penn is an amazing place to do cancer research, because of our collaborative and innovative basic science, as well as clinical researchers who are on the forefront of novel therapies. We can bring these treatments to the remarkable pool of patients who come through our doors each day.

Who have been your most influential mentors?

I have been lucky to work with a number of astounding clinical, research and career mentors, including but not limited to Peter O'Dwyer, MD, Robert Vonderheide, MD, Gregory Beatty, MD, and Ursina Teitelbaum, MD. I wouldn't be where I am today without their support.

What makes you proud to do the work you do?

My proudest moments are when I am with my patients and they tell me that since starting therapy for their cancer, they feel so much better — they were able to see their child graduate, they were able to walk their daughter down the aisle at her wedding or they were able to travel somewhere on their bucket list.

What is your vision for the future of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is ripe for new treatments that give patients years of benefit, rather than the months we currently expect.

It's not easy helping people through one of the most difficult times in life — being faced with cancer. How do you stay motivated?

Beyond the science and the hope for new and better treatments, each patient visit keeps me going.

For more information on pancreatic cancer, please contact us by calling 800-789-7366 or filling out our contact form.

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The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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