Three years after Stand Up to Cancer, the groundbreaking partnership between the nation’s entertainment industry and the cancer research community, announced the formation of a group of scientific “Dream Teams” to fight some of the thorniest challenges in cancer research and care, Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center is well on its way to delivering on the promise of the innovative initiative. On September 7th, the third Stand Up To Cancer telethon – a celebrity-studded live telecast to be broadcast on ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX, featuring concerts from Alicia Keyes, Taylor Swift and Coldplay – will give the world a glimpse of what these physician-scientists have accomplished so far.
Armed with $18 million in funding, a group of Penn Medicine investigators who are a key part of the pancreatic cancer Dream Team are leading the nation’s most innovative pancreatic cancer research projects, which together have enrolled more than a thousand patients – nearly half the number who are participating in clinical trials for the disease across the board. Though pancreatic cancer is not among the most common forms of cancer, it is one of the most lethal, representing the fourth most common cause of cancer death. As many as 80 percent of patients who get the news that they have the disease will die within a year. Since the pancreas is tucked deep inside the abdomen, cancers there often grow silently, prompting no outward symptoms until the disease is advanced or has spread to other parts of the body. By that time, it’s typically not possible to remove the tumors with surgery, but other treatment options were scarce: Until recently, even the best chemotherapy agent for the disease only improved patients’ quality of life – helping them eat more, for instance, 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 the department of Surgery, Chi Dang, MD, PhD, director of the Abramson Cancer Center, and Peter O’Dwyer, a professor in the division of Hematology Oncology who specializes early-stage trials of innovative new cancer drugs -- aim to discover more about the nutrients pancreatic tumors rely on to grow, and develop new therapies designed to cut off that essential fuel. With Hollywood productions as a model, the investigators are on tight deadlines to demonstrate progress in their new studies, which Drebin says have spurred the teams to work together in new ways and get results quickly.
“Too often, I have to give bad news to pancreatic cancer patients,” Drebin says. “Patients being cared for here at Penn can take advantage of every bit of the latest knowledge about pancreatic cancer’s biology, so that we can provide them with treatments that have the best chance at being effective.”
One of the projects, a Penn-led tumor tissue banking study of guitar pick-sized pieces of tissue from pancreatic cancer tumors, is a nationwide scavenger hunt that, bit by bit, is yielding new information that stands to shape a new, hopeful generation of treatments. After each sample is removed from patients having surgery at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania, the tissue is divided and sent for different types of specialized analysis at other institutions across the country including the Salk Institute, Princeton University, the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona, and the Johns Hopkins University.
Already, the study has provided the initial clues necessary to launch a brand new treatment trial designed to inhibit a process called autophagy that helps pancreatic cancers thrive and grow. When normal cells are starved for food, they resort to chewing up their own damaged proteins and membranes and recycling them into fuel to help them stay alive. Cancer cells have corrupted that process – autophagy -- using it to survive when they run out of their preferred nutrients and to evade death even after they’re damaged by chemotherapy and treatments. The tissue banking trial showed that cancer cells carrying a mutated Kras protein, which is present in about 85 percent of these pancreatic cancer patients, seems especially prone to relying on autophagy to survive even in the face of chemotherapy agents. Within months, the team was able to harness that information and develop a new drug regimen for metastatic pancreatic cancer patients that combines chemotherapy drugs with an existing anti-malarial drug that inhibits autophagy. Together, those agents seem to be putting extra muscle behind the war on patients’ tumors, leading to, for some patients, tumor shrinkage that, Drebin says, doctors have never seen before.
To learn more about Stand Up To Cancer and the lifesaving research the effort supports, tune in on Friday, September 7th.