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AHN Cancer Institute, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center Researchers Examine Link Between Obesity and Pancreatic Cancer

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Researchers at Allegheny Health Network Cancer Institute and Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center are partnering to study why one of the most common conditions affecting Americans – obesity – is also one of the biggest risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive and deadly cancers, with five-year survival rates of less than 10 percent. And while death rates for most cancers are declining, the death rate for pancreatic cancer is actually increasing slightly each year. Pancreatic cancer usually causes symptoms only after the disease has advanced, and no reliable screening test exists that can detect it in its early stages.

In addition to studying new treatments and potential screening methods, researchers are also looking at modifiable risk factors for pancreatic cancer, one of which is obesity.

“Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and challenging to treat,” said Dulabh Monga, MD, medical oncologist at AHN Cancer Institute and Program Director, Hematology Oncology Fellowship. “We know that people who are obese are at about 20 percent higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. About 40 percent of Americans are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and those numbers are continuing to rise, putting many more people at risk.”

“However, the mechanisms that underlie the obesity-cancer link are not well understood. In our research, we hypothesize that fat cells in and around the pancreas imprint neutrophils – a type of white blood cell that protects us from infection – in a way that their anti-tumor immunity function is suppressed,” Dr. Monga said.

“Other theories have included hormonal changes associated with excessive fat, and increased exposure to carcinogens due to increased food consumption. Obesity is also associated with diabetes, which in turn is linked to pancreatic cancer development.

“Research that clarifies the complex connection between obesity and pancreatic cancer could help us identify people most at risk, develop preventive strategies or targeted therapies, and eventually improve the outlook for people facing this devastating disease,” Dr. Monga said

“We live in a time of great progress in cancer detection and treatment, yet many challenges remain. At AHN Cancer Institute we believe collaboration holds the key to progress on diseases such as pancreatic cancer that are difficult to screen for and treat,” said David Parda, MD, Chair, AHN Cancer Institute. “This important research on one of the biggest risk factors for pancreatic cancer is an excellent example of how our partnership with Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center is advancing medical research and paving the way for new insights that could benefit patients for years to come.”

AHN Cancer Institute provides leading oncology expertise and programs at the network’s hospitals and affiliated clinics that serve patients from western Pennsylvania, Erie, West Virginia and Ohio.

Highmark Health and AHN are in the midst of a nearly $300 million investment to expand and enhance cancer care options in the western PA region.  In addition to five new community cancer centers, AHN is also building a new academic cancer center at Allegheny General Hospital and further strengthening its unique collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, offering enhanced local access to Hopkins’ cancer expertise and clinical trials.