March 01, 2018
4 min read

Stand Up To Cancer dream team strives for ‘active interception’ of pancreatic cancer

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Anirban Maitra

The Stand Up To Cancer foundation has formed a “dream team” to identify new ways to detect pancreatic cancer at earlier stages when it is most amenable to treatment.

Nearly 53,670 people in the United States are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, and an estimated 43,090 people die of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Stand Up To Cancer, in collaboration with the Lustgarden Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research and others, awarded a 4-year, $7 million grant to fund four pancreatic cancer projects designed to improve the detection and treatment of pancreatic cancer.

The projects will include universal testing for inherited mutations and deep machine learning to improve imaging techniques. Team members will work toward the development of new blood tests to predict risk and detect early-stage disease, and a novel vaccine tailored to combat emerging disease.

“Our plan is to intercept pancreatic cancer by finding it and stopping it before symptoms occur, when the disease is still silent or — even better — before it is actually cancer,” Anirban Maitra, MBBS, scientific director of Sheikh Ahmed Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said in a press release. “Right now, high-risk individuals are followed with endoscopy and periodic imaging, and we hope to catch any progression to cancer early, but there is no active interception to be done for them.”

HemOnc Today spoke with Maitra about the projects the team is working on, the anticipated timeline for completion and other initiatives planned for the near future.


Question: What prompted the creation of this dream team?

Answer: Stand Up To Cancer routinely builds dream teams to address some of the greatest challenges in cancer research and treatment. Pancreatic cancer remains one of the most difficult cancers to detect and treat. Approximately 8% of patients survive 5 years after a diagnosis, and although pancreatic cancer accounts for only 3% of cancers in the United States, it causes 7% of deaths from cancer. We must do better. That will require new approaches, such as those funded by this grant.


Q: What are the dream team’s goals?

A: The goal of this dream team is cancer interception — identifying and stopping cancer before symptoms occur or, even better, before precancerous lesions have a chance to become cancer. Intercepting pancreatic cancer very early should reduce deaths from this disease and even prevent it outright.


Q: Who are the team members?

A: Stand Up To Cancer’s dream team concept gathers experts across institutions and disciplines, building optimal teams to understand and attack cancer. The principal institutions on this team are MD Anderson; Johns Hopkins University; Moores Cancer Center at University of California, San Diego; Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Mayo Clinic. We all bring to bear a range of expertise in pancreatic cancer detection, treatment, imaging, screening and immunotherapy. The team also includes five members of the National Academy of Sciences — a unique team that has never worked together prior to this in addressing pancreatic cancer interception.



Q: Can you describe the projects funded through this grant?

A: There are four major projects. The first involves identifying people at risk for the disease. We will conduct germline sequencing of 2,000 patients with pancreatic cancer to identify those who carry known risk-raising mutations, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. We will offer first-degree relatives of those patients genetic counseling and screening through high-risk clinics. Relatives found to have risk-raising mutations enter an active screening protocol that includes regular imaging and blood-based biomarker testing.

Second, to fulfill an urgent need to improve imaging, we are applying computational algorithms to teach computers to recognize pancreatic abnormalities that are not detected by the human eye. This machine learning should improve the information we get from MRI and CT imaging, which right now are not good at detecting small tumors or abnormalities that can lead to pancreatic cancer.

Third, cancer-free individuals who are at high risk because they have germline mutations and precancerous lesions — such as cysts on their pancreas — will be enrolled in the first vaccine clinical trial designed to prevent pancreatic cancer. Vaccines provide a relatively low-impact treatment compared with other therapies for intercepting pancreatic cancer in a healthy population.

Fourth, this team brings together leaders in the field of molecular biomarker research aimed at developing a blood test to identify pancreatic cancer early. We will test the best biomarker candidates in hundreds of samples gathered from research cohorts over many years, and we will be able to analyze the samples gathered from people who started out healthy but eventually developed pancreatic cancer. By identifying biomarkers in that group, we hope to be able to better select people who should receive more aggressive screening or early treatment.


Q: Is there a timeline for project completion?

A: The grant is for 4 years, but we expect the team’s contributions during that period to have an ongoing impact on the interception of pancreatic cancer.


Q: Are additional projects planned?

A: Stand Up To Cancer has many ongoing mechanisms for funding active teams, such as the Stand Up To Cancer Phillip Sharp Innovation in Collaboration Award, which funds collaborations between these types of teams. There also are funding initiatives and awards geared specifically toward early career investigators who are part of Stand Up To Cancer teams and we certainly plan to pursue those.


Q: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?

A: Pancreatic cancer remains a very challenging disease, and interception provides an unprecedented opportunity to make an impact on families who are at high risk for this cancer. The opportunity for so many great and creative individuals to work together would not have happened without the umbrella of Stand Up To Cancer. We are very grateful for this opportunity. – by Jennifer Southall


For more information:

Anirban Maitra, MBBS, can be reached at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 1220 Holcombe Blvd., Houston, TX 77030; email:

Disclosure: Maitra reports no relevant financial disclosures.