Pancreatic (Pancreas) Cancer - Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Diseases / Research

Pancreatic Cancer Research

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreas cancercell glands (stained in blue) are surrounded by an intense inflammatory reaction of other cells.

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Fred Hutch scientists are studying the risk factors that contribute to pancreatic cancer, identifying new methods for early detection, shedding important light on how tumors develop and searching for ways to overcome pancreatic cancer’s resistance to chemotherapy.

The Hutch is home to the world’s largest population-based study examining environmental and genetic risk factors that contribute to the development of pancreatic cancer and pioneered one of the most significant breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer research in decades.  

Fast Facts

  • Pancreatic cancer affects the pancreas, an organ in the abdomen. The pancreas is responsible for producing enzymes that help digest food and hormones that help balance blood-sugar levels.

  • The disease's symptoms are difficult to identify, making it hard to detect pancreatic cancer until it has reached an advanced stage. It ranks as the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related death in U.S. men and women.  
  • Different types of tumors can occur in the pancreas. The most common type is pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, a cancer that is almost always deadly and forms in the cells that help deliver enzymes for food digestion, known as exocrine tumors. Less deadly and far less common are tumors that form in the cells that make the hormones, called endocrine tumors.

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Prevention & Causes

Developing a groundbreaking research tool – Dr. Sunil Hingorani pioneered one of the most significant breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer research in decades. He helped develop a genetically engineered mouse model that exactly mimics human pancreatic cancer. The model, which is now widely used in research around the world, has opened the door to discovering new treatments and diagnostic tests. Learn more >

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Detection & Diagnosis

Early detection – Our researchers are finding new ways to detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages. Our work includes:

  • Proteins to detect early-stage pancreatic cancer - Dr. Paul Lampe and colleagues are using antibody microarrays to search for blood-based proteins that could detect early-stage pancreatic cancer. Lampe is using this same method of searching for blood-based biomarkers for the early detection of breast and ovarian cancers. Learn more >
  • Understanding pancreatic cancer's progression – Dr. Sunil Hingorani and colleagues have discovered that a specific sequence of otherwise common genetic mutations—not just their mere presence—is responsible for the development of the most common and almost uniformly deadly form of pancreatic cancer: ductal adenocarcinoma. Learn more >

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Treatment & Prognosis

Understanding why pancreatic cancer resists treatment – Dr. Sunil Hingorani and colleagues have identified several important reasons why pancreatic cancer is resistant to conventional forms of treatment. These discoveries include:

  • Reduced blood supply - Dr. Hingorani was part of a research team that uncovered certain characteristics of pancreas tumors that contribute to their drug resistance — and hit on an entirely new strategy for targeting the disease. The team found that not only is pancreas tumor tissue extremely dense, it also possesses an unusually sparse network of blood vessels. These features prevent chemotherapy from penetrating and spreading within the tumor.

    Dr. Hingorani and his colleagues used their innovative laboratory model of human pancreas cancer to show that by blocking production of the cancer cells’ dense surrounding tissue, they could increase blood flow to the tumor and improve the chemotherapy’s ability to destroy it. Learn more >

  • Vascular collapse – Pancreas tumors use a unique, two-pronged defense to resist chemotherapy treatment: a greatly reduced blood supply and the creation of an intense and fibrous inflammatory response. Dr. Hingorani’s team discovered that the fibroinflammatory response creates unusually high interstitial fluid pressures which collapse the tumor’s blood vessels and prevent chemotherapies from getting to the tumor. Learn more >

Making pancreatic cancer easier to treat – Dr. Hingorani and colleagues are researching tailored approaches to overcoming the disease. These include:

  • New Treatment Strategies – Hingorani’s team recently found that administering an enzyme/chemotherapy combination results in rapid reduction of the interstitial fluid pressure which in turn opens up the blood vessels and permits chemotherapy to reach the tumor. The result was a 70 percent increase in survival time of the mice after the start of treatment.  Learn more >
  • Drug knocks down pancreatic cancer's defense - A study conducted by Dr. Hingorani found that by adding an experimental drug known as PEGPH20 to a standard chemotherapy regimen, some patients had a significantly longer period before the cancer progressed. Learn more >

  • Immunotherapy – Together with other Center scientists, Dr. Hingorani and Dr. Phil Greenberg, a pioneer in T cell immunotherapy, are examining ways to stimulate the body’s own immune system to fight pancreatic cancer.
    Learn more >


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