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Additional funding urged for UNMC research into deadly pancreatic cancer

Nebraska Medical Center
Posted at 11:47 AM, Feb 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-20 12:47:16-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — The list of Nebraskans claimed by pancreatic cancer is a long one, a state legislative committee was told Thursday.

Former Creighton University President John Schlegel, former University of Nebraska Regent Bob Whitehouse and even baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson are among the widely-known victims of the rare but deadly cancer.

About 200 Nebraskans a year die from pancreatic cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of only 10%.

“I bet everyone here knows someone who has died from this disease,” said Jim Armitage, an oncologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, whose wife died from pancreatic cancer.

‘Silent killer’

Armitage is now married to Shirley Young-Armitage, who lost her husband, Union Pacific President Jim Young, to the disease in 2014.

Jim and Shirley were among those urging support for a bill that would earmark $15 million of the state’s $1.04 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds to expand research into pancreatic cancer at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. That money would be matched with $15 million in private donations under Legislative Bill 766.

It’s a “silent killer,” according to State Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, who lost his wife to the disease.

Researchers are still working on an effective way to screen for pancreatic cancer and still looking for the best ways to treat it, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee was told.

Difficult to detect

“My wife’s diagnosis came without warning,” Kolterman said. “She was the picture of health until she started showing symptoms.”

Because it’s so difficult to detect, the cancer has often spread to the point that surgery is pointless once it’s found, said Dr. Kelsey Klute, another UNMC oncologist. Most people die within a year, she said.

In recent years, the Buffett Cancer Institute has built a national reputation for its research into pancreatic cancer. In 2018, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents established the UNMC Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence, which increases its profile and chances for grant funding, Kolterman said.

First study of its kind

UNMC researchers were the first in the country to launch a study of people whose families have a history of pancreatic cancer. That study, started in 2018, now takes regular blood samples from 500 people in hopes of developing an early detection test, Klute said.

In a couple of months, a top cancer researcher from Seattle, Dr. Sunil Hingorani, will become the director of the UNMC pancreatic cancer center.

But Klute and others said the program needs additional funding. Its current grant funding allows research into only about 20% of “our best ideas,” she said. More money would allow recruitment of more scientists and researchers.

“There’s no reason we in Nebraska can’t be the best at this,” Armitage said, in urging support for LB 766.

The Appropriations Committee took no action on the bill after Thursday’s hearing. The committee is expected to make its recommendations next month on how to spend the ARPA funds.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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