Center News Magazine: Pancreatic Cancer Research Center Takes Transformative Approach

By Jim Stallard, MA, Writer/Editor  |  Thursday, June 26, 2014
Pictured: Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, Eileen O’Reilly, Steven Leach, and Peter Allen (From left) Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, Eileen O’Reilly, Steven Leach, and Peter Allen

Pancreatic cancer is an especially arduous disease, rarely detected early and very challenging to treat. While great progress has been made with many other malignancies, pancreatic cancer has yielded little in the way of clinical advances, and most patients still die from the affliction.

To address this complicated disease, Memorial Sloan Kettering has launched the David M. Rubenstein Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research (CPCR), an ambitious endeavor funded with an initial commitment of $10 million from Mr. Rubenstein, a member of the Boards of Overseers and Managers, and directed by surgeon, developmental biologist, and pancreatic cancer expert Steven Leach.

“We want to make this the most innovative, high-impact pancreatic cancer center in the world,” says Dr. Leach, a recent recruit from Johns Hopkins University, where he was the Paul K. Neumann Professor in Pancreatic Cancer. The CPCR will be co-directed by medical oncologist Eileen O’Reilly, surgical oncologist Peter Allen, and pathologist Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue.

“The resources provided by Mr. Rubenstein are transformative and address an urgent need,” Dr. Leach says. “Within the next decade pancreatic cancer is predicted to become the second most common cause of cancer death in the United States. Mr. Rubenstein’s gift will allow us to accelerate and embolden our research in a way that will hopefully alter this trend.”

A Multipronged Approach

Bringing together Memorial Sloan Kettering clinicians and scientists, the CPCR will attack pancreatic cancer on multiple fronts, including uncovering alterations in the genome responsible for the onset, growth, and spread of the disease. Dr. Iacobuzio-Donahue, another recent recruit from Johns Hopkins, has done seminal work in showing how pancreatic cancer cells with certain mutations evolve into ever-more-complex lineage trees, and has started to look at the disease from an evolutionary biology perspective.

One of the initiatives she pioneered at Johns Hopkins that will also be deployed by the CPCR is rapid medical donation. Through this program, patients with end-stage disease consent to have a rapid autopsy so living tumor cells can be taken from both the primary tumor and metastatic disease in other organs.

“Rapid medical donation is among the most important approaches we can take as cancer researchers and clinicians toward understanding the disease’s natural history — how and why different cancer cell populations adapt to treatment through evolutionary selection, why some cancers are more adept at metastasizing, and how cancer ultimately kills the patient,” Dr. Iacobuzio-Donahue says.

The CPCR will also support the distribution of innovative mouse research technologies created by biologist Scott Lowe, Chair of the Geoffrey Beene Cancer Research Center and the Cancer Biology and Genetics Program. These methods can rapidly and inexpensively create mice with pancreatic cancers that are biologically very similar to their human counterparts and that can be readily used in preclinical studies, allowing prompt screening of new therapeutic strategies.

An expanded slate of clinical trials and patient programs will also be launched under the umbrella of the CPCR, with leadership provided by Drs. O’Reilly and Allen. And, says Dr. Leach, “there are aspects of the biology of this cancer that make it an often-fatal disease, even when diagnosed relatively early, so we’ll also be exploring ways for ever-earlier diagnosis.”

“The CPCR’s mission is to improve the lives of patients with pancreatic malignancies through bold, innovative, multidisciplinary research,” he concludes. “We want to do the highest-impact research and rapidly apply our findings to alter the course of this disease.”