Questions about pancreatic cancer research

What is research?

Research is the process of conducting an investigation to solve a problem, increase knowledge or create something new. Medical research examines the causes, diagnosis and treatment of disease. Pancreatic cancer research aims to discover why the disease happens and how to prevent it, signs and symptoms, best treatments and how to improve quality of life for patients during their disease and beyond. Research is broken down into a number of stages and it can take many years to get from an idea to a result. Research does not always end in a positive outcome or result in a new medicine or insight; many studies fail to show effective results.  

Why does research matter?

Without research, medications and treatments for many diseases would not exist. Every time you see a doctor, pharmacist or nurse, their advice is based on the results of medical research. Research helps us to know if medications work, how medications should be taken and any side effects. It can tell us about the causes of disease, who may be more likely to get diseases and how to prevent them. Without research, a lot of the treatments and care that we are used to would not be there or would not work as effectively.  

What research takes place for pancreatic cancer?

Research for pancreatic cancer can be broken down into a number of categories. The disease is not well understood and therefore researchers may focus on different aspects of causes, development, growth and treatments. Research is wide ranging and at any time, many studies will be taking place across the UK, Europe and worldwide.  

Research into pancreatic cancer focuses on many different aspects of the disease; 

  • Research into the causes of pancreatic cancer and why some people’s chances of getting the disease are higher than others. Examples of this include research into family history or the link between the disease and smoking.
  • Research into how the cancer forms and develops. This may involve looking at the cell types in the tumour or early warning signs such as biomarkers.
  • Finding new treatments for the disease or improving existing treatments. Research also takes place into how to make treatments more effective against the disease, for example by delivering them to where the tumour is more effectively.  
  • Finding new ways to manage the symptoms of the disease and side affects of treatment to give patients the best possible quality of life.  

Why is there no screening test for pancreatic cancer?

Screening tests for cancer need to be able to do the following things; 

  • Be able to detect any cancers or changes that may lead to cancer whilst also accurately identifying when no cancer is present.
  • The test needs to not be invasive or cause side effects that would stop people from taking the test 
  • It needs to be cost effective for the NHS. For rarer cancers, the benefit of the screening has to outweigh the cost and potential harm in taking part, including the harm from any worry caused.  

Screening may be offered to select groups in rare cancers, and researchers are always looking for new ways to detect disease. An organisation called EUROPAC is involved with researching pancreatic cancer and screening. It runs a screening programme for those people who are over 40 at high risk due to a family history of pancreatic cancer and gene mutations (such as BRCA 2).   

At present there is no reliable test for detecting pancreatic cancer at an early stage for everyone in the population. The pancreas is deep within the body making it hard to visualise and changes that occur at the start of pancreatic cancer need to be specific to the disease and happen to everyone so they can be reliably detected. This is one of the areas that research is focused on. 

What are the barriers to pancreatic cancer research?

There is increasingly more research into pancreatic cancer, however the condition receives only around 3% of overall cancer funding and less research takes place than some other conditions. 

Furthermore, pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose and treat. The symptoms can be vague and difficult to identify. Each person’s tumour is unique and therefore finding a test or treatments that work for everyone is a challenge. 

Another issue for research in general is that many patients are not recruited for clinical trials. The exact reasons for this are unclear, in some cases it may be that patients are not fit enough to take part in a long research study or that patients and doctors are unaware of their local trials. Many people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed late, once their disease has already spread so it can be difficult to research areas related to early diagnosis and effective treatments.  

Research that does take place needs to cover a wide range of areas, but there are some areas of progress. For example, studies examining the link between diabetes and pancreatic cancer are taking place in Liverpool that began with a small fund from Pancreatic Cancer Action and have now resulted in a large £2.17 million Cancer Research UK funded study.