Pancreatic cancer is a formidable foe. It grows fast and spreads quickly, often before any symptoms appear. And because of its notorious resistance to treatment, 97 percent of patients aren’t alive five years after diagnosis.
Dr. Sunil Hingorani understands all too well the pain inflicted by a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. He lost his father to the disease, leading him on a personal and professional mission to find ways to beat it. His dedication is paying off with some of the most significant contributions in the fight against pancreatic cancer—including a breakthrough discovery that could change the way it is treated.
A few years ago, Hingorani developed the first mouse model that faithfully mimics human pancreatic cancer, from its precancerous inception to its advanced stages. This powerful tool has enabled researchers to get closer to understanding pancreatic cancer’s defenses better than ever before, opening the door to more effective ways to detect and treat the disease.
Using this model, Hingorani recently made two potentially momentous discoveries. He unraveled the secrets of how pancreatic tumors thwart therapies and then developed a way to penetrate those defenses. Most cancerous tumors grow blood vessels to deliver nutrients and oxygen to them, providing an entrance for chemotherapy drugs to gain access to the tumor.
In pancreatic cancer, however, Hingorani discovered that pancreatic tumors build a tough, protective shell—similar to scar tissue—that physically keeps chemotherapy from entering the tumor. This revelation explains why treatments that eliminate other cancers are ineffective here; the cancer drugs never reach the pancreatic cancer cells.
With this knowledge, Hingorani and colleagues found a way around the protective shell: Using their mouse model, the team employed an enzyme that digests and removes the scar-like tissue around the tumor. With the tumor defenses breached, the chemotherapy can enter and attack the cancerous tissue.
The results were so successful, Hingorani worked to get clinical trials fast-tracked. Hingorani, with his unwavering dedication to patients, is now leading an international trial for patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer, using a combination of the enzyme and chemotherapy.
Already, his work is bringing new hope to patients at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the treatment arm of the Hutchinson Center. “We’re not just treating a disease,” he said. “We are treating a person. Patients are not statistics. We think about this disease day and night.”