Research Spotlight: Pancreatic Cancer
This Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Cure Cancer grant recipient Dr George Sharbeen shares an update on his work in pancreatic cancer, and urges further support for research into the deadly disease.
I was always interested in a career in biomedical research, but my focus on a career in cancer research really began after my PhD. Up until then, my work was largely about understanding basic biological processes. As a scientist it was rewarding, but I was eager to do something that had a more direct impact on health in the country.
My drive for a career in cancer research was solidified after seeing my uncle succumb to leukaemia and the hopelessness the family felt when there were no treatment options left.
Why Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer was a stand-out for me because of the lack of treatments and the lack of progress in patient survival. It ranks 10th out of the 10 most common cancers in the country but is the deadliest of this list, with less than 9% of patients surviving to 5 years post-diagnosis. Based on these dismal statistics, I felt that this was a cancer where my research could make the greatest impact for patients, so I embarked on a post-doctoral research project with A/Prof Phoebe Phillips at UNSW Sydney after completing my PhD.
I’ve since gained expertise in pancreatic cancer research, including a deep understanding of the pathology of the disease, hurdles to effective treatment, and mouse models that mimic clinical features of pancreatic cancer. We’re currently developing a potential novel therapeutic approach for pancreatic cancer, using nanomedicine to inhibit a DNA repair protein that is important for pancreatic cancer cell survival and resistance to chemotherapeutics.
I’m passionate about the work that I do, but there are aspects of my job that can be frustrating. It can be really difficult to acquire competitive research funding to test our novel ideas, particularly for early-career researchers who have a limited track record of success. It also takes a long time to see therapies taken from the bench to the bedside. As a cancer researcher, my ultimate goal is to have an impact on patient survival and quality of life, but the reality is that it can take over a decade to get through clinical trials. Nevertheless, the small successes along the way keep me going. Meeting cancer survivors and fundraisers is particularly inspirational, and a big driver of my work.
What does the future look like?
The last 5 years has been a very exciting time for pancreatic cancer research in Australia. We have had the first pancreatic cancer genomes sequenced as part of the Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative, opening avenues for personalised therapy, and we have seen the development of novel imaging platforms that have allowed us to see disease processes and the activity of chemotherapeutics in real-time. We also have made substantial gains in our understanding of how the tumour microenvironment contributes to pancreatic cancer progression, leading to current clinical trials that are harnessing the immune system and remodelling the tumour microenvironment to improve treatments for the disease.
Nevertheless, pancreatic cancer patient survival has seen little improvement for the last four decades and is predicted to become the second leading cause of cancer-related death by 2030. What’s worse is that our current best treatments only extend survival by 2-4 months. Conventional therapies are clearly not working, so research into novel therapies is critical if we are to substantially improve pancreatic cancer patient outcomes. Despite this urgent need, the poor survivorship has meant we have had less public awareness and advocacy for this disease when compared to ‘higher profile’ cancers. As a consequence, pancreatic cancer research has received much less funding than many of the other top 10 cancers.
Supporting pancreatic cancer research is essential to prevent it from becoming the cancer of our generation.