Univ. of Pa. wins $18M for pancreatic cancer

May 27, 2009 3:27:46 PM PDT
Last September, many of you tuned in to "Stand Up 2 Cancer." It was a huge fundraiser that aired on all 3 major television networks.

Today, the money raised from that campaign started going out.

The University of Pennsylvania is getting the largest grant, to fight one of the deadliest cancers.

100 million dollars was raised during the all-star telethon, to get advances in research from the lab to patients faster.

Some of the grant money will go towards research at the University of Pennsylvania.

Doctors there will target pancreatic cancer - the type Patrick Swayze is battling.

Dr. Craig Thompson, leader of the so-called Penn "Dream Team," told Action News, "The 1-year survival from pancreatic cancer is about 20 percent. We'd like that to go over 50 per cent."

Pancreatic cancer has been hard to detect until it's already spread. Plus, it doesn't respond to most current cancer drugs, because its cells work differently.

Dr. Thompson say most cancers use glucose, a sugar, as their fuel.

But pancreatic cancer cells, "They use amino acids, particularly one amino acid - gluatamine - which is highest in circulation in our body."

PET scans, a diagnostic scan commonly used to assess the spread and severity of cancer, use a radioactive isotope mixed with glucose. As tumor cells devour that glucose, they show up on the PET scan screen.

But most pancreatic tumors don't absorb glucose, so they can't be "seen."

Surgeon Jeffrey Drebin says that hampers his attempt to remove the cancer.

" Because of the limits of our imaging, we can't detect small deposits of the disease outside the surgical field. We can do large operations, but we still aren't curing patients." says Drebin.

Penn researchers are exploring those differences, and are already developing new compounds to be used with the radioactive isotopes for improved PET scans. They will also search for the "Achilles heel," or vulnerable spots on pancreatic cancer cells, with the aim of combining existing drugs in new ways to hit those weak spots.

"We really need to understand this tumor better if we're going to make better inroads," says Dr. Thompson.

What they find will be tested in patients, possibly starting this fall.

Doctors will also try new *combinations of drugs already the market...and they say their work will also benefit people with colon, kidney, and some breast cancers.

The hope is there will be more stories like that of Kevin Paine, of Villanova, Pa.

Kevin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 6 years ago. At the time, some doctors said he couldn't beat it....

But thanks to advances in research he's defying the odds.

Kevin says life is good these days, "I still go for walks, do yard work, work every day."

The project at the University of Pennsylvania is one of five accelerated research projects.

Other research will focus on finding cures for lung, brain, ovarian and cervical cancer.

All the projects will last three years but must meet certain milestones to show progress.

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