SAN DIEGO — November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Nov. 18 is World Pancreatic Cancer Day. On this day, people across the globe come together to raise awareness about the symptoms and risks of the disease, and the urgent need for earlier detection.
According to data from pancreatic.org, more than 1,257 people worldwide will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every day. While death rates are declining for many other cancers, death rates are increasing for pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. It is currently the 3rd leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States after lung and colon.
In 2021, an estimated 60,430 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S., and more than 48,220 will die from the disease.
For all stages combined, the 5-year relative survival rate is 10%.
Dr. Dannielle Engle is an assistant professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Her lab's focus is finding better ways to detect and treat pancreatic cancer. She lost both her father and her uncle to pancreatic cancer.
"He wasn't there when I got my Ph.D. He wasn't there when I got married," Engle said. "It is really scary because very few people have heard of pancreatic cancer so of course you go to the internet and you look it up and everything you read is just doomsday."
Currently, there are not a lot of treatment options for patients with pancreatic cancer. Most patients are prescribed the same treatment, but that does not work for most.
Engle helped create a model using "organoids," a model of a patient's tumor.
"It's just balls of cells, almost like miniature tumors growing in a dish," Engle said.
This model helps match the patients' tumors to the most effective treatment in hopes of a better outcome for the patient. More than 100 labs worldwide have been trained to generate models for patients in hopes that better treatments can be found.
"We call it precision medicine so that we can remove some of the guesswork from what types of treatments the patients are receiving," she said. "We propagate basically these 'avatars' of their tumor. And it turns out that every single patient's tumor is slightly different."
This model allows them to test different treatments, drugs, and combinations on the tumors to find the best treatment for the patient.
"We're basically farmers. We're growing these on a scale so that we can ask big questions and test big ideas because that's what it takes," Engle said. "This enables us to ask those very sophisticated questions like what is Plan A, what's Plan B, let's workshop this out so that we can see if we can get ahead of it and really intercept it before it becomes even more deadly. It removes all the guesswork and so right away they get the best possible treatment for their specific tumor."
Engle credits her father, Dea, with her career path into trying to find the cure for pancreatic cancer. He always encouraged her to explore her interest in science and to go after her dreams. She initially was interested in exploring genetics, but after his death, she switched her focus to pancreatic cancer.
"I'm constantly telling my family what am I doing, what am I struggling with, what successes are we having, because it's really important to them also the work that I'm doing," Engle said.
She has turned her grief into fuel and is focused on improving patient lives and training the next generation of scientists.
"What we've done is really prioritize the patients and giving them some more options and some more hope," she said.
Because Engle understands the science and the personal aspects of dealing with the disease, she also advocates for patients and their families as they navigate the cancer fight.
"It's like reliving the past every time I work with another family or another patient and it's hard but at the same time completely necessary," she said. "I do it because I have this drive, I have this passion."
The pancreas is an organ about 6-inches long, deep in the abdomen between the stomach and the spine.