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VAI researchers making advancements in pancreatic cancer

5:20 PM, Oct 6, 2011   |    comments
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The Van Andel Institute

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) - We can't live without the pancreas.

Located near the liver, the pancreas has two main functions, to secret enzymes during digestion and to secret insulin to regulate blood sugar.

Most pancreatic cancer patients have the more aggressive cancer that attacks the digestive system, like Patrick Swayze.

Steve jobs had the type that attacks the part of the pancreas involved in insulin secretion.

It's the rarest form and affects only 1% of the 10,000 yearly pancreatic cancer patients.

The Van Andel Institute recently received an $18-million grant from Stand Up To Cancer to research this rare, but deadly, cancer. And they are making significant advancements.

The specific name for the cancer Steve Jobs had is neuroendocrin islet cell pancreatic cancer, "That particular kind of cancer is less aggressive than the main kind of pancreatic cancer." Which Van Andel researcher Dr. Brian Haab says answers the question as to why was Jobs able to survive for 8 years.

The survival rate is much higher with this type of cancer but there is always the chance of a recurrence. Which is what happened after Jobs had surgery to remove his tumor and then a subsequent liver transplant that further stressed his immune system. "What happens is that a small number of cells can escape. They can be resident in a dormant state. Once they exit from that dormant state they already have overcome much of the body's resistance so they are free to grow as much as they are able to." Haab is currently working to identify better ways to identify pancreatic cancer in individual patients.

Other researchers like Dr. John Bender are developing clinical trials to try and track whether pancreatic cancer has returned before it's too late, "What markers of pancreatic cancer can we actually look at in patients. Do you need to look at them in blood or urine and how often do you need to look at them. And what do they predict."

The Van Andel Institute is conducting their research with the help West Michigan patients and Spectrum Health's pancreatic cancer surgeon Dr. Matthew Chung, "We have one of the best surgeons in the country here in Grand Rapids who does pancreatic cancer surgeries and that's where a lot of these collaborations between the Van Andel are going to take place to look for those markers of disease."

Which Dr. Bender hopes will be available to all pancreatic cancer patients in the next two years, "West Michigan ought to be able to contribute nationally to the effort."

An effort that may one day lead to a cure for pancreatic cancer.

By Valerie Lego

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