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UNMC researchers leading the way in pancreatic cancer treatment

Posted at 6:31 PM, Jul 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-15 19:31:01-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Omaha-native and Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and is currently getting treatment at Nebraska Medicine.

Pancreatic cancer is a fast-moving and deadly form of cancer and researchers at UNMC are some of the leaders in its field of study.

"It's a highly lethal disease first of all which is one of the really bad features of it," said Dr. Tony Hollingsworth, a researcher at UNMC who specializes in pancreatic cancer. "The fact patients are diagnosed late in the disease is one of the big problems so they don't live a long time. It's a silent killer. What happens is the disease starts out and progresses for a long time and then the sorts of signs and symptoms it causes can't be detected until the late stage so patients come in with advanced stages of the disease and they die soon after that."

The pancreas has two main jobs, to digest nutrients such as protein and fat and to regulate insulin. Located near the abdomen, cancer symptoms are nearly impossible to detect.

"It's very fatty, it gets irritated or inflamed really easily and sometimes it can be really hard to see a one or two centimeter tumor in the pancreas even with those scans," said Dr. Kelsey Klute, an oncologist with Nebraska Medicine and UNMC.

Klute said most patients are diagnosed with the disease when it's already at Stage 4, while symptoms are seen in patients around Stage 3.

"General population we don't recommend screening because we don't have a test that can diagnose someone who is not at a significant risk," Klute said.

Unfortunately pancreas cancer is one of the toughest cancers to detect early. Researchers at UNMC are on the cutting edge of trying to find a cause of this cancer early.

"There's a lot of evidence from recent clinical trials that if you detect it in the early stages and give it chemotherapy early for example, even if the disease is metastatic that patients can live longer." Hollingsworth said. "If we could detect the disease earlier, give us a few more chances to give them therapy and maybe extend their lifespan."

Hollingsworth said the researchers at UNMC have latched on to a bio-marker called C-19 as an indicator for cancer treatment success.

"So it turns out that when cancers develop and progress they make things that get secreted in to your blood called bio-markers. The disease gets worse the marker goes up and if it gets treated it goes down so that's a good marker for tracking the progression of cancer."

Pancreatic cancer research still has a long way to go. According to Dr. Klute, the five-year survival rate of the disease is nine-percent. But if researchers can find a way to catch the disease early, there may be a way to cure it in future patients.

"The more we can detect it earlier, the more chances we have to really treat it earlier and the more cures we can have and certainly we can extend the lifespan of patients by doing that," Hollingsworth said.

UNMC is also home to a rapid autopsy program, where researchers from across the country can check out tissue samples to do their own research on finding a cure for pancreatic cancer. Researchers also say they want to look more at immunotherapy and its relationship with pancreatic cancer.