Disease profile: Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive, tough-to-treat disease in which malignant cells develop in the pancreas, a small gland located near the stomach that is responsible for producing hormones and digestive fluids. It is the third deadliest cancer in the U.S., claiming more than 40,000 lives each year. By 2020, it is expected to surpass colorectal cancers as the second-leading cause of cancer-related death.

Because it rarely causes noticeable symptoms in its early stages, pancreatic cancer often isn’t diagnosed until it is quite advanced. By this point, cancer cells may have spread to other parts of the body — a process called metastasis — further complicating an already challenging treatment process.

Current treatments for pancreatic cancer are largely limited to chemotherapy and surgery, with effectiveness based in part on how widespread cancer cells are in the body (for more on treatment, please see the American Cancer Society’s pancreatic cancer resources here; all treatment decisions should be made in close consultation with an oncologist).

Risk factors

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis (a condition in which the pancreas is inflamed)
  • Having diabetes or chronic pancreatitis
  • Certain hereditary conditions (see here for a list)

How can research help?

Designing better tests: Right now, diagnosing pancreatic cancer early on is difficult at best and impossible at worst. Scientists like Van Andel Research Institute’s Dr. Brian Haab are working to develop simple blood tests that look for chemical signatures left by pancreatic cancer, which would enable doctors to detect this deadly disease much earlier. The sooner cancer is detected, the sooner treatment can begin, giving patients a better chance at remission (read more about Dr. Haab’s work in this area here).

Differentiating between subtypes: Understanding the tiny molecular differences that distinguish one pancreatic cancer from another gives scientists an important foundation upon which to develop new treatments. The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) is a notable example. In 2017, this National Cancer Institute-led, multi-institutional effort reported results from in-depth analysis of 150 pancreatic cancer tumors, which confirmed major molecular drivers of the disease while also identifying several new features that may one day lead to more precise, personalized therapies.

Translating discovery into treatment: No two pancreatic cancers are identical, just as no two people are identical. That’s why scientists and physicians are working to design treatments that are tailored to individual patients based on the molecular makeup of their tumors, a change that one day could result in better care with fewer side effects.


Pancreatic cancer treatment — National Cancer Institute