Pancreatic cancer research gets a boost with grant to Pitt doctor


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Pancreatic cancer is the fourth deadliest cancer -- behind only lung, colorectal and breast cancers. But the cancer sits 10th on the list in terms of federal research funding.

The long-standing funding disparity has led the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network of Washington, D.C., to begin its own research grant program. Since 1999, it has awarded $18 million in research grants. Last week, the network announced more than $5 million in grants for the year, including $200,000 to a University of Pittsburgh doctor.

Daolin Tang, an assistant professor in UPMC's department of surgery and at its Cancer Institute, is studying the high-mobility group protein B1 -- or HMGB1 -- to determine its function in inflammation, immunity and creation of pancreatic cancer. His novel approach eventually could lead to a treatment strategy that takes advantage of the protein's effect on the cancer.

"Winning this award from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is a great honor to me," Dr. Tang said. "The award will not only be a financial help but will also assist me as I work toward an interesting and successful career in pancreatic cancer."

In addition, he said the network has created "a robust pancreatic cancer research community."

The pancreas is a small organ tucked deep in the abdominal cavity alongside the small intestine and toward the back. The pancreas produces digestive juices to metabolize carbohydrates, proteins and fats while secreting insulin to regulate blood sugar levels along with other substances to neutralize stomach acids.

The pancreas' hidden location and the lack of early symptoms make pancreatic cancer difficult to diagnose, often until late stages of the disease. It also stands protected by a microbiological environment that blocks treatments.

The difficulty of treating the cancer and the lack of grant money have been ongoing concerns.

"There's not enough funding and not enough scientists focused on the disease," said Julie Fleshman, the network's president and chief executive officer. "Definitely pancreatic cancer has been underfunded at the federal level. It's low when compared with other leading cancers.

"We organized to advocate for patients, including making more research dollars available. It is something we're concerned about and working toward," she said. "Sequestration causing more budget cuts is another concern for us all."

In December, Congress passed the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act to reduce the funding disparity and focus on cancer resistant to treatments. Pancreatic cancer routinely causes death within a year of diagnosis, with only a 6 percent survival rate after five years.

Despite the American Cancer Society's estimate of 37,390 pancreatic cancer deaths last year, National Cancer Institute's $97 million in research funding for the fourth deadliest cancer research ranked 10th in spending among all cancers. That compares with $631 million in funding for breast cancer, nearly $282 million for lung cancer and about $270 million for colorectal cancer.

Even prostate cancer, which killed fewer people than pancreatic cancer, topped $300 million, representing more than three times the funding made available for pancreatic cancer.

With the PCAN grant money, Dr. Tang said his team has postulated that HMGB1 functions as "an atypical tumor suppressor" in the start and progression of pancreatic cancer. Using the protein would be a new way to diagnose and treat the deadly cancer.

HMGB1 affects the cancer in opposite ways, depending on whether it is inside or outside the pancreatic cell.

Outside the cell, Dr. Tang said, HMGB1 serves as a growth factor among other functions that can advance the cancer. But inside the cell, the protein suppresses tumor growth by promoting, among other things, genome stability.

As a major driving force for creation of a cancerous tumor, genome instability, including chromosome abnormalities, occur early in cancer development.

Based on preliminary studies and results from other researchers, Dr. Tang said possible strategies include increasing HMGB1 proteins inside the cell to suppress tumor growth while inhibiting its presence outside the cell to diminish tumor development.

He said he doesn't anticipate research results from the new grant for two or more years.

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David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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