When the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network was founded in 1999, the 5-year relative survival rate was 5.3%, according to National Cancer Institute statistics. In the intervening years, the survival rate has remained stubbornly low. What is different is awareness: Today, more research is being conducted by more scientists, and the pancreatic cancer advocacy community has never been bigger. So too for Manhattan Beach, CA-based Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, which hired its first employee in 2000 and will soon hire its 100th.
President and CEO Julie Fleshman, JDâwho was that first employeeâcan explain just how far the science around pancreatic cancer has come. Tumors tend to be surrounded by, in Fleshman's words, a dense microenvironment that makes drug delivery difficult; it's one of many reasons why treating pancreatic cancer is so challenging.
"That finding ... is something we've only started to appreciate the significance of in the last five years," Fleshman, who lost her father to pancreatic cancer in 1999, said. "It shows you that when you finally dedicate time and resources and people to a topic, you start to understand what the challenges are, which then allows people to focus their efforts in the right way to make scientific advancements."
And the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network sees those advances are coming. Early in 2011, the organization announced an initiative to double the survival by 2020; now, seven years out, Fleshman said reaching the goal will be difficult but far from impossible. Even so, the future holds promise for patients. There are 142 active clinical trials, according to the organization's comprehensive pancreatic cancer clinical trials database. Moreover, earlier-stage research is ongoing and being taken up by an ever greater number of scientists.
"That's probably the most significant change," Fleshman said. "We're learning more about the disease, we're understanding better the challenges about why it is so difficult to treat, and that is going to get us to changing patient outcomes in the future."
And because research is such a critical part of the puzzle, Fleshman said it's important for the organization to be a Research!America member.
"Biomedical research is a key priority for our organization," she said. "With pancreatic cancer, there is no detection tool, and we need better treatment options. We're not going to make those scientific advances unless there is more federal funding for the disease. We're very proud to partner with Research!America to make medical research a national priority."