July 19, 2023

Roll & Stroll for Pancreas Cancer advances crucial research at UW Carbone Cancer Center

Individual on a bike at the starting line of Roll & Stroll event

The Pancreas Cancer Task Force started about 10 years ago with an ambitious goal set by founding member Ron Niendorf: raising $1 million for pancreas cancer research at the UW Carbone Cancer Center.

Gerianne Holzman recalled how skeptical she and the handful of other task force members were of Niendorf’s statement. Being a very small, upstart group of people honoring and advocating for loved ones affected by the deadly cancer, they thought the goal was too lofty.

However, their membership grew and their annual Roll & Stroll for Pancreas Cancer fundraiser increased in popularity and donations. Now in its 10th year, Roll & Stroll has surpassed that $1 million fundraising benchmark, providing crucial seed money for researchers exploring new ideas who then leverage their initial findings into even bigger grants.

“To see it go from us doubters to where we are today, and the millions of dollars that have come from what we started, is incredible,” Gerianne said.

This year’s Roll & Stroll takes place on Aug. 13 at Capital Brewery in Middleton. Attendees can register to run, walk or bike at the family- and dog-friendly event, with proceeds going to research at UW Carbone. This year’s goal is to raise $200,000.

The event also will include presentations from Task Force members and UW researchers, as well as a remembrance for UW Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank, who died of pancreas cancer earlier this year.

Pancreas cancer is among the deadliest forms of cancer, with a five-year survival rate of only 12%. The disease is frequently not caught until the metastatic stage. Additional research on methods of early detection and effective treatments are desperately needed.

Drs. Sean Ronnekleiv-Kelly and Jeremy Kratz, both physician-scientists whose research includes investigating new pancreas cancer treatments, have received a grant funded by the Pancreas Cancer Task Force for their collaboration on CRISPR screening to identify new targeted therapies for pancreas cancer. CRISPR involves selectively editing DNA to evaluate specific genes in cancerous cells so researchers can understand their function and test them as therapeutic targets. They are testing screening combinations that include cyclin dependent kinase 7 (CDK7) as one identified target.

“We use the patient-derived cancer cells for the screen,” said Ronnekleiv-Kelly, a surgical oncologist and researcher for UW Carbone and UW Department of Surgery. “Essentially we knock out the relevant genes in the cancer cells, in conjunction with this therapeutic (CDK7 inhibitor) administration, and then we can see when you knock out individual genes, which gene, when targeted, heightens cancer cell death.”

“From there, you extrapolate this gene generates mRNA, which generates a protein product, and we can target that protein product to give us an informed combination therapy that may be much more effective than existing combination therapies.”

Kratz’s expertise in organoid modeling, derived from real patient tissue, offers a testing environment that is more authentic to the conditions of the human body.

“Each one of these cultures comes from a patient,” he said. “Most of these come from patients with advanced disease, and they donate a piece of their tissue biopsy, surgical specimen, or waste fluid to our research laboratory. So, to some degree, this is pretty personal because these are people we know in the clinic who are giving back to help advance our research mission at UW Carbone. We have extended this program through rapid autopsy to provide an opportunity for those who have succumbed to their cancer to leave a lasting gift in these living models that we can use to help future patients.”

Ronnekleiv-Kelly said without the funding provided by the Pancreas Cancer Task Force fundraising, they would not have been able to initiate this work. This project was the first collaboration for Kratz and Ronnekleiv-Kelly, and their partnership has worked so well that they have initiated other pancreas cancer-related projects together.

Holzman’s sister, Carole Vick, passed away from pancreas cancer in 2011, eight months after her diagnosis. At the time, patients rarely survived more than a year. Holzman said it has been remarkable to see patients living longer, including having survivors on the Task Force, but more work still needs to be done.

This will be Holzman’s last year as chair of Roll & Stroll, having led the effort for several years. While she has enjoyed the role, she wants to make way for new ideas that can lead the event to even bigger success.

“For this to be such a grassroots project, 75% run by volunteers, that has grown to be something so big, I think it’s remarkable,” she said.