Research funding is critical to improving pancreatic cancer patient outcomes. But unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough of it.

A study published last month in the journal Gastroenterology suggests that pancreatic cancer funding has been moving in the right direction – and that private funding in particular has increased significantly over the past decade.

Andrew Hendifar, MD, MPH

Andrew Hendifar, MD, MPH

Andrew Hendifar, MD, MPH, medical oncology lead for the Gastrointestinal Disease Research Group at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and co-director of Pancreas Oncology, is the senior author for the Gastroenterology paper, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s Scientific & Medical Affairs team contributed to the gathering, analyzing and reporting of the data.

Julie Fleshman, JD, MBA, and Lynn Matrisian, PhD, MBA, president and CEO and chief science officer for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, respectively, shared their insights about the findings and their implications.

Recently, we had an opportunity to chat with Hendifar about what inspired him to tackle this important topic and how we can learn from the results.

Dr. Hendifar, what made you decide to go into medicine?

Dr Hendifar family

Dr. Hendifar with his wife and children

As an undergraduate student, I was mainly interested in philosophy and biochemistry. In fact, my favorite course was the philosophy of medicine and science. Ultimately, I was drawn to the humanity and the practical application of science to help heal people.

During medical school, I did an internship in internal medicine, and my very first rotation was in the cancer ward. The experience changed my life forever. I met a lot of patients undergoing treatment for cancer and made some connections that have lasted since.

I moved on to do a fellowship in hematology and oncology, and one of my first patients had pancreatic cancer. I remember feeling so disheartened that I could not offer this patient more options to manage his disease and its effects on his body.

As someone naturally drawn toward difficult situations, I decided then and there that I would focus my clinical practice on the treatment of patients with pancreatic cancer.

What drove you to dive deeply into the pancreatic cancer research funding landscape?

Like I said, I’m drawn to tough challenges! No one had thoroughly analyzed the contribution of private funding in the setting of diminishing funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies, so I decided to tackle that question.

I spoke with the research team at PanCAN, and we thought it would be a great idea to work with the International Cancer Research Partnership (ICRP) to investigate their database as well as gather information from other well-known groups.

I thought the project would be quick, but it took several years. The deeper we dug, the more layers and more interesting findings surfaced.

What did you find?

If you look back at 2003 to 2013 in the ICRP database, you’ll see that the trend for private pancreatic cancer research funding has been growing. It’s a different story for liver cancer, and this is not a trend that cuts across all cancers.

I’ve always felt that the pancreatic cancer advocacy and research community was special – and these findings confirmed it. Having organizations like PanCAN supporting pancreatic cancer research at such a significant level has set a new precedent and model for overcoming insufficient government funding.

What do you consider the single most important outcome of this study?

Private funders of pancreatic cancer research, like the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, are making a deep contribution to moving the science forward, accounting for almost 20 percent of all funding in our field in 2013.

Convening members of the general public to fund research – not just assuming it’s taken care of by our government – has been key. I feel that the balance of private and federal funding going toward pancreatic cancer research can serve as a model for other disease types.

This is just the beginning of the story for pancreatic cancer, of course. Research has led to a significant understanding of the underlying biology of the disease, and now is the time to continue that research and learn how to apply it to benefit patients and improve outcomes.

Learn how you can support leading-edge research and other programs at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Also, raise your voice to ensure that NIH funding is sustained and attend National Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day, June 19 – 20, in Washington, D.C.