Healthy cells (blue) that surround pancreatic cancer cells (purple) prevent drugs reaching the tumour. Credit: Salk Institute for Biological Studies
In the build up to this year’s Stand Up To Cancer, we’re running a series of posts that focus on the science that is happening around the country thanks to your generous donations and amazing fundraising. The first in our series focuses on pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the biggest challenges in cancer research. It’s hard to treat, partly because it’s often diagnosed late. So, last year, we joined forces with Stand Up To Cancer and the Lustgarten Foundation to co-fund an £8 million international Pancreatic Cancer ‘Dream Team’. This transatlantic group of researchers from the UK and US are finding new ways to turn off faulty molecular switches that play a critical part in how pancreatic cancer develops and grows.
Professor Gerard Evan is a leading cancer genetics expert at the University of Cambridge, and a co-leader of this Dream Team. We caught up with him to gather his thoughts on working with a group of the world’s best cancer scientists on one of the toughest cancers to beat.
Cancer Research UK: What do we know about pancreatic cancer?
Professor Evan: Pancreatic cancer starts in the pancreas – a gland in the abdomen that produces digestive juices and hormones.
Treatment for this disease hasn’t changed much for 30 to 40 years and survival remains poor. Only one in every 100 people with pancreatic cancer survives their disease for more than 10 years.
Pancreatic cancer rates have gone up by nine per cent in the UK over the past decade while over this same period the number of people in the UK dying from pancreatic cancer has increased. But we don’t yet know why this is happening.
Cancer Research UK: What is the Dream Team?
Professor Evan: A group of us have come together to better understand pancreatic cancer and change the course of this terrible disease. Our team consists of researchers from the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona; the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego; Princeton University; the Barts Cancer Institute; Queen Mary, University of London; and also from here in Cambridge.
Being part of the Dream Team means we share all our ideas and expertise, with the aim of speeding up research progress in pancreatic cancer.
Science is a deeply social profession – it’s about phoning each other and talking and regularly meeting. And the group is amazingly collaborative, passionate and open – despite a time difference of up to 8 hours, we talk to each other all the time!
In Cambridge, we work on a molecule called Myc. Myc has many different roles within healthy cells, as well as in cancer cells.
Its normal role is to kick start your cells into action and replicate when that is needed, such as, for example, when you hurt yourself. But in cancer cells, control of Myc gets damaged and the cells can’t turn it off. So cells can’t stop growing.
Thanks to this Dream Team, we in Cambridge now get to work closely with our colleagues, now friends, at the Salk Institute. We’re very proud to be pooling our expertise and working with another world-leading research group.
This has already been the most exciting collaboration I’ve ever been part of. I get to work with wonderful, brilliant people in the US, doing all sorts of things we wouldn’t be able to do by ourselves. It’s really good to know that I’m closer to what I’ve always dreamed of doing, which is trying to find ways of treating this ghastly disease.
Cancer Research UK: How long has the Dream Team been going for now?
Professor Evan: Only eight months. But we’ve already enrolled some people in clinical trials for promising new drugs. This has taken an enormous amount of work from the teams at the Translational Genetics Institute in Phoenix and the Barts Cancer Institute.
We’ve also just had our first progress review in San Diego which was intense but seemed to go very well.
Cancer Research UK: Where is the pancreatic cancer field heading over the next few years?
Professor Evan: Well obviously, we want cures. As with most cancers, cures may be different for each person. Treatments will work for some people but not for others.
One of the really hot research areas being explored in other cancers is this idea of engaging the patient’s own immune system to seek out the cancer cells and treat their cancer. But so far, in pancreatic cancer, this hasn’t really worked at all.
In principle, the idea of employing your immune system is a good one. We just need to know how to do it and working this out takes time.
Cancer Research UK: What difference do you hope to make to patients?
Professor Evan: I hope that therapies will become much kinder and more effective than those we’ve got at the moment. Many people are as frightened by the treatment as they are of the cancer.
In the end, we want a therapy where the patient can carry on having a normal life, and their cancer becomes a treatable and curable disease. Now I know it sounds unlikely, but the science tells us it’s possible.
Cancer Research UK: Do you enjoy what you do?
Professor Evan: I’m one of the most fortunate people on the planet, because I never treat what I do as a job. I’m able to dream up ideas and check them out.
When I wake up in the morning I can have an idea, and while it may take two or three years to implement this idea and test it, I am trusted to do just that. And that’s an amazing privilege.
I’m in a dream team doing my dream job. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Cancer Research UK: What does Stand Up To Cancer mean to you?
Professor Evan: To me, Stand Up To Cancer symbolises a really exciting attempt to change cancer from a disease of doom and gloom and an insolvable problem, into something that is curable and where people appreciate how much research is going on.
There is an urgency driving Stand Up To Cancer and Cancer Research UK that is very exciting for a scientist like me because research progress can be slow. But now I’m sharing expertise and working with people who have so much energy and so much enthusiasm, it is moving at a much faster pace.
Doing research is all about emotion, excitement and passion. And we want to share that.
Interview conducted by Rebecca Campbell, research information officer at Cancer Research UK