Editor’s note: May is National Cancer Research Month, and we recently had the opportunity to speak with two leading pancreatic cancer researchers. Learn about their scientific focus and how the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) plays a role in supporting research progress.
“None of us are as smart as all of us,” said Howard Crawford, PhD, referring to the power of a multidisciplinary, team-based approach to researching pancreatic cancer.
“Many research groups are siloed, but PanCAN encourages everyone to work together,” continued Crawford, a professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the University of Michigan and a member of PanCAN’s Scientific and Medical Advisory Board.
Crawford described PanCAN as pioneering a new way to do cancer research, which is modeled beautifully at his institution, the University of Michigan.
“We have a large group of researchers focused on pancreatic cancer at University of Michigan,” said Marina Pasca di Magliano, PhD, who regularly collaborates with Crawford. “We also work closely with the clinical team to make sure our research findings have direct application to human disease.”
Pasca di Magliano is an associate professor of general surgery and the recipient of a PanCAN Career Development Award, funded in memory of Paul Mitchell, in 2009.
“My PanCAN grant was the first grant I received,” Pasca di Magliano said. “The funding from PanCAN made a big difference, showing my institution I can be successful, and allowing me to gather data necessary to apply for and receive additional funding from other private and public sources.
“And equally important was the opportunity to meet other pancreatic cancer researchers and become part of the community.”
Both Crawford and Pasca di Magliano’s labs are interested in how pancreatic cancer cells interact with other cells surrounding and supporting the tumor. In particular, both labs study how pancreatic cancer cells interact with cells of the immune system.
“I’m most interested in how cancer cells ‘talk to’ and affect the activity of immune cells,” Crawford explained, “while Marina focuses on how immune cells send signals to the cancer cells.”
Despite successes in other cancer types to get the patient’s own immune system to fend off their tumor, immunotherapy has only shown promise in a small subset of pancreatic cancer patients so far.
For an immunotherapy approach to benefit patients with pancreatic cancer, cancer-fighting immune cells need to get to the tumor – and immune cells that protect the tumor and block the cancer-fighting cells will need to be weakened or eliminated.
“I believe immunotherapy will eventually work for more patients with pancreatic cancer,” Crawford said. “But in order to get there, we need a deeper understanding of the ‘interactome’ – the ways in which all the types of cells in and around the tumor communicate with one another and promote disease progression.”
Pasca di Magliano added, “Our goal is to reach a precision medicine approach whereby we don’t just gather molecular details about the cancer cells, but we also learn about the cells supporting the tumor and even factors present in the patient’s blood – and use that combined information to guide treatment decisions.”
As for why Crawford joined PanCAN’s Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, his answer was simple, “We owe you.”
He continued, “Most of us go into the field of cancer research wanting to give back – to help the community, benefit patients, honor a loved one. Working with PanCAN creates another opportunity to make a big difference.”