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Salk "Dream Team" Pierces Pancreatic Cancer's Defenses

Stand Up To Cancer

In October, the SU2C pancreatic cancer "Dream Team" gathered at the Salk Institute to discuss their groups' progress and future directions.

Front row: Rajesh Kumar, Bart Kamen, Liz Campbell, Cassandra Lucas, Dan van Hoff, Anna DeJesus-DeCosta, Helen Cai, Ron Evans, Ti Dause, Scott Schleiber

Middle row: Mara Sherman, Michael Downes, Dan Laheru, Kim Wood, Mike Barrett, Barbara Vance, Roz Walker, Jeff Nieves

Back row: Jurre Kamphorst, Michelle Duff, Mark Wade, Geoff Wahl, Ning Ding, Zhu Wei, Tony Hunter, Rich Posner, Sandra Rosewell

When the Who's Who of the entertainment industry gathered for the second Stand Up 2 Cancer (SU2C) celebrity-studded telethon this fall, three Salk researchers—Geoff Wahl, Ronald Evans and Tony Hunter—were among the evening's stars.

They are an integral part of the pancreatic cancer "Dream Team," which has been awarded $18 million by SU2C to combat pancreatic cancer in new ways. Wahl compares the concept behind the dream teams to the Manhattan Project: "You put people with different backgrounds together to solve a bigger problem."

And pancreatic cancer has been a largely intractable problem. It is one of the deadliest forms of cancer, with 94 percent of patients dying within five years of their diagnosis—a statistic that has barely budged over the past 40 years.

One of the obstacles to successful treatment of pancreatic cancer is a dense fibrous shell, which makes it difficult to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs to the tumor. Wahl, who heads the Salk arm of the pancreatic cancer team, and his colleagues at the Institute are trying to devise strategies to break through the wall where the tumor is hiding.

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"The idea is to target the armor of the cancer rather than the cancer itself," says Wahl. "Once the defenses are breached, we can use commonly used drugs to directly attack tumor cells."

Trying to hit multiple targets, other team members focus their energies on personalized treatments and cutting off the tumors' fuel supply. Daniel D. Von Hoff, at the Translational Research Genomics Institute in Phoenix, AZ, who initiated the pancreatic cancer dream team, is searching for genetic alterations in individual patients' tumors to develop treatments based on those genetic signatures. Craig Thompson at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center is developing tests using advanced imaging techniques to determine what nutrients pancreatic cancer cells require to fuel their growth and survival.

The multi-pronged approach is paying off: the first clinical trial is already under way. "There are many people out there who depend on us," says Wahl. "We really don't have time to waste."