February 28, 2022

Pancreas Cancer Prevention Program strategically monitors patients at high risk

Madison, Wis. – Since its inception in 2020, the Pancreas Cancer Prevention Program has grown significantly.

In April 2020, Wisconsin was still grappling with the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, personal protective equipment and stay-at-home guidelines. But to the Pancreas Cancer Prevention Program, it was the quiet beginning of a new method for preventing a deadly cancer.

The Pancreas Cancer Prevention Program is designed to identify and monitor patients who are at an increased risk for developing pancreas cancer. The team consists of surgical oncologists, gastroenterologists, radiologists, genetic counselors, a nurse navigator, and others. As Cancer Prevention Month comes to a close, the program now monitors more than 1,000 patients at increased risk of pancreas cancer.

Prevention is especially important because pancreas cancer is on the verge of becoming the second most deadly cancer behind lung cancer, according to Dr. Rebecca Minter, surgical oncologist, UW Carbone Cancer Center, and chair of the Department of Surgery, UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

“We needed a better way to identify pancreas cancer earlier in those who are at the highest risk of developing it,” Minter said, “because pancreas cancer presents in patients too late for a surgical option about 75 percent of the time.”

Widespread screening for pancreas cancer does not work the way it does for things like breast cancer or colon cancer because this cancer is still somewhat rare, and population-based screening has not been effective for pancreatic cancer to date, according to Minter.

Factors that increase a patient’s risk include genetics, family history and certain types of cysts that can be found in the pancreas. These pancreas cysts can be compared to polyps in the colon, and while most do not become cancerous, their presence can indicate an increased risk of pancreas cancer, according to Minter.

“These cysts can be identified via an MRI or CT scan, even if these scans are done for another purpose,” she said. “So, our colleagues in radiology refer patients with these incidentally identified cysts to the program so we can screen them and monitor for changes, ideally preventing cancer or catching it early in a subset of patients who have worrisome features.”

In the future, Minter hopes the program can develop and implement a screening process that is less invasive than the standard MRI scans and endoscopic ultrasounds, she said. A key collaborator, Muhammed Murtaza, associate professor, Department of Surgery, UW School of Medicine and Public Health, leads a team of researchers investigating how to identify biomarkers for concerning pancreatic cysts in the blood or urine.

“If we could identify pancreas cancer earlier and easier, like detecting pancreatic cysts through a blood draw, it would be a gamechanger,” Minter said.

For now, Minter believes the way forward is to find more individuals at elevated risk for the cancer and to identify the cancer before it presents with symptoms, or more ideally before it turns into an invasive cancer.

“We approach this work with hope,” Minter said. “We won’t give up on preventing this deadly cancer and we don’t want our patients or our community to, either.”