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Pancreatic Cancer: Is the Money Where the Mouths Are?

37,680 new cases a year.
34,290 deaths.

Those are the grim statistics for pancreatic cancer, the fourth-leading cause of cancer death and one of the scariest diagnoses a person can get.

Pancreatic cancer's been getting lots of press lately--little of it good--from accounts of the deaths of Luciano Pavarotti in September and photojournalist Dith Pran late last month to the recently announced diagnosis of actor Patrick Swayze and the sensation caused by Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture" (which you can read more about in this "On Parenting" blog) before his impending death from the disease,

It's easy to feel defeated about this particularly malevolent malignancy. It's notoriously hard to diagnose because its symptoms are subtle until the disease is advanced, at which stage it's nearly impossible to treat. But is there any hope in sight?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) sponsors research, including a study released yesterday in which researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center show that in mice with pancreatic lesions similar to those in humans that typically become pancreatic tumors, restricted-calorie diets kept those lesions from going malignant. The research further illuminates the already known link between obesity and pancreatic cancer.

But that's mice, and mouse studies don't always translate to humans. To my eyes, the NCI's research list looks like a lot of chipping away at a big problem; it doesn't appear that a "Eureka!" moment is close at hand.

That's not stopping Victoria Seng, a sophomore majoring in cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland, from entering the fray. Victoria, whose uncle Will died of pancreatic cancer in December 2003, has been inspired to turn her talents to fighting the disease, organizing fundraisers and information sessions in the years since her uncle's death.

Victoria spent a lot of time with her uncle before and after his diagnosis. "It was difficult to see him going through all that," she says. Of her fundraising efforts, she says, "It felt good to do something about it, to make things a little bit better." Now she hopes her research can help unravel this most daunting of medical challenges; she donated the money she raised to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, which supports research and provides help and guidance for people dealing with the disease. She's landed an internship at the NCI this summer, where she understands her work will include keeping pancreatic tumor cell cultures alive for research purposes. No celebrity glamor there: just quiet, important work.

Randy Pausch notes that pancreatic cancer lacks a celebrity spokesperson because hardly anybody survives long enough to lead the next walkathon. That's a shame. Especially since it's clear that with celebrity advocacy comes public attention and accelerated research. Just look at Lance Armstrong's influence on the campaign against testicular cancer.

But while it may help to draw celebrities to the cause of cancer research, it's more important to attract scientists--especially budding scientists like Ms. Seng.

The introduction to the NCI's 2009 budget speaks to that point. The budget report notes that "the average age of a first-time NIH grant recipient is now over 41--up from 34 in 1970. Grants receiving scores that in times of greater resources were competitive now are not funded. Furthermore, the number of training awards for scientists has stayed level in recent years, even though the number of applications has continued to rise. This reality can be discouraging for seasoned scientists as well as trainees who, unable to obtain funding, are pursuing other careers at a time when we need them the most."

Not all of us can get degrees in molecular genetics. But, I don't know: Maybe more of us should. In the meantime, I for one have new appreciation for those nameless scientists who conduct the kind of behind-the-scenes research that may one day lead to cures not only for high-profile cancers but for less-recognized ones, too.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 16, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cancer  
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