Three years after StandUp to Cancer, the groundbreaking partnership between the nation’sentertainment industry and the cancer research community, announced theformation of a group of scientific “Dream Teams” to fight some of the thorniestchallenges in cancer research and care, Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Centeris well on its way to delivering on the promise of the innovative initiative.On September 7th, the third Stand Up To Cancer telethon – acelebrity-studded live telecast to be broadcast on ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX,featuring concerts from Alicia Keyes, Taylor Swift and Coldplay – will give theworld a glimpse of what these physician-scientists have accomplished so far.
Armed with $18 million in funding, a group of Penn Medicine investigatorswho are a key part of the pancreatic cancer Dream Team are leading the nation’smost innovative pancreatic cancer research projects, which together haveenrolled more than a thousand patients – nearly half the number who areparticipating in clinical trials for the disease across the board. Thoughpancreatic cancer is not among the most common forms of cancer, it is one ofthe most lethal, representing the fourth most common cause of cancer death. Asmany as 80 percent of patients who get the news that they have the disease willdie within a year. Since the pancreas is tucked deep inside the abdomen,cancers there often grow silently, prompting no outward symptoms until thedisease is advanced or has spread to other parts of the body. By that time, it’stypically not possible to remove the tumors with surgery, but other treatmentoptions were scarce: Until recently, even the best chemotherapy agent for thedisease only improved patients’ quality of life – helping them eat more, forinstance, and have more energy -- but didn’t extend it by long.
The Stand Up To Cancer pancreatic cancer dream team’s projects-- spearheaded at Penn by Jeffrey Drebin, MD, PhD, the chairman of thedepartment of Surgery, Chi Dang, MD, PhD, director of the Abramson CancerCenter, and Peter O’Dwyer, a professor in the division of Hematology Oncologywho specializes early-stage trials of innovative new cancer drugs -- aim todiscover more about the nutrients pancreatic tumors rely on to grow, anddevelop new therapies designed to cut off that essential fuel. With Hollywoodproductions as a model, the investigators are on tight deadlines to demonstrateprogress in their new studies, which Drebin says have spurred the teams to worktogether in new ways and get results quickly.
“Too often, I have to give bad news to pancreatic cancerpatients,” Drebin says. “Patients being cared for here at Penn can takeadvantage of every bit of the latest knowledge about pancreatic cancer’sbiology, so that we can provide them with treatments that have the best chanceat being effective.”
One of the projects, a Penn-led tumor tissue banking studyof guitar pick-sized pieces of tissue from pancreatic cancer tumors, is a nationwidescavenger hunt that, bit by bit, is yielding new information that stands toshape a new, hopeful generation of treatments. After each sample is removedfrom patients having surgery at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania, thetissue is divided and sent for different types of specialized analysis at otherinstitutions across the country including the Salk Institute, PrincetonUniversity, the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona, and the JohnsHopkins University.
Already, the study has provided the initial clues necessaryto launch a brand new treatment trial designed to inhibit a process calledautophagy that helps pancreatic cancers thrive and grow. When normal cells arestarved for food, they resort to chewing up their own damaged proteins andmembranes and recycling them into fuel to help them stay alive. Cancer cellshave corrupted that process – autophagy -- using it to survive when they runout of their preferred nutrients and to evade death even after they’re damagedby chemotherapy and treatments. The tissue banking trial showed that cancercells carrying a mutated Kras protein, which is present in about 85 percent ofthese pancreatic cancer patients, seems especially prone to relying on autophagyto survive even in the face of chemotherapy agents. Within months, the team wasable to harness that information and develop a new drug regimen for metastaticpancreatic cancer patients that combines chemotherapy drugs with an existinganti-malarial drug that inhibits autophagy. Together, those agents seem to beputting extra muscle behind the war on patients’ tumors, leading to, for somepatients, tumor shrinkage that, Drebin says, doctors have never seen before.
To learn more about Stand Up To Cancer and the lifesavingresearch the effort supports, tune in on Friday, September 7th.