Sylvester Pancreatic Cancer Research Institute Takes on the Toughest Tumors

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Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine recently established the Sylvester Pancreatic Cancer Research Institute (SPCRI). The new center will support innovative research, increase collaborations between scientists and clinicians, and provide more treatment and clinical trial opportunities for patients.

Stephen D. Nimer, M.D.

“The SPCRI will revolutionize pancreatic cancer care for patients in south Florida and beyond,” said Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., Sylvester director and holder of the Oscar de la Renta Endowed Chair in Cancer Research. “It will combine Sylvester’s clinical strength with world-class research to discover, develop and deliver novel personalized treatments to pancreatic cancer patients.”

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers with a five-year survival rate of only 10%. It is currently the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States and is projected to become the second by 2030. The SPCRI was created to advance research and training to prevent, diagnose, treat, and cure pancreatic cancer.

Nipun Merchant, M.D.

Pancreatic cancer outcomes remain so poor, in part, because the disease is resistant to almost all treatments. SPCRI is taking a holistic approach to address this hurdle, leveraging robust clinical programs and laboratory research and building strong interdisciplinary collaborations to share innovative ideas.

“At Sylvester, we have long been ahead of the curve on linking the science to clinical care,” said surgical oncologist and founding SPCRI director Nipun Merchant, M.D. “We have created a translational bridge, not just from the laboratory to the patient’s bedside, but also taking patients’ tumor samples and clinical information back to the laboratory,” Dr. Merchant said. “Here, we study all facets of pancreatic cancer comprehensively and bring valuable information back to patients and oncologists.”

Transformative Impact

SPCRI also provides resources to enhance ongoing cancer research and clinical care. Clinicians and researchers are coalescing to enhance collaborations at the University of Miami, as well as nationally and internationally.

Jashodeep Datta, M.D.

“The impact of the SPCRI will be transformative to our catchment area of South Florida in particular, and to the national and global fight against pancreatic cancer,” said Sylvester surgical oncologist Jashodeep Datta, M.D. “Our goal is to bring key stakeholders in this fight under the same umbrella — clinicians, scientists, patients, advocates, philanthropists — to generate groundbreaking discoveries that are translated into actionable therapies for our patients.”

The team will study South Florida’s diverse racial and ethnic populations to better understand how epidemiological and environmental factors influence the disparities in pancreatic cancer susceptibility and outcomes amongst distinct groups. This will provide ongoing educational opportunities for researchers and new avenues of investigation.

The clinicians and scientists at SPCRI want to better understand why some patients respond well to treatment while others do not. What are the molecular signatures in tumors that make a treatment more effective? Finding these biomarkers will inform care from the first biopsy, giving oncologists enhanced tools to provide the most precise treatments for each patient.

Perhaps most importantly, the team wants to investigate the tumor microenvironment to find vulnerabilities that will give treatments and immune cells better access to tumors.

“If you look at the tumors themselves, they’re actually quite small,” Dr. Merchant said. “But they’re surrounded by dense stromal tissue that creates a protective shell that prevents chemotherapies from penetrating the tumor and also renders the bodies’ immune system ineffective to attack the tumor. We need to find ways to get past that.”

One way is to understand the signals that go back and forth between tumor cells, stromal cells and immune cells. Dr. Merchant believes that, if they can disrupt this crosstalk, they can make major headway against the disease.

“We also want to better understand the psychosocial needs of patients and their caregivers,” Dr. Merchant said. “Pancreas cancer is one of the most difficult diagnoses. The treatment is long and challenging. We have to go beyond focusing on chemotherapy and surgery and provide better support for patients and their families.”

“I’m passionate about the science, but I also see these patients daily,” Dr. Merchant said. “I see how challenging this disease is for patients. We need to drive better science to have a real impact on their care. That is what motivates me every day.”

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