Sunil Hingorani carefully places slides in succession under the lens of his microscope. He scans each one deliberately, looking for subtle differences in the cancer tissue under examination.
Everything in his lab is uncluttered and organized, indications of his attention to detail. But the calm and ordered environment is fueled by an unparalleled intensity, which even a casual observer can sense as Hingorani meticulously adjusts the eyepiece of the instrument. It's an intensity that enables him to stay awake for days on end to search for answers to one of the most deadly of cancers.
Hingorani leads the Fred Hutch’s pancreatic cancer research program and is responsible for some of the most recent and significant breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer research. His work is giving new hope to a disease that is almost uniformly a death sentence by the time it is detected.
"Pancreas cancer is unusually lethal. It's essentially 100 percent fatal," Hingorani said.
Hingorani’s breakthrough work began with the landmark development of a mouse model that faithfully mimics human pancreatic cancer from its precancerous inception to its advanced stages. Scientists around the world now use this model system to study the cancer. Hingorani has built on this research foundation, using the model to identify a sequence of genetic mutations responsible for the development of the most common and deadly form of pancreatic cancer: ductal adenocarcinoma.
Hingorani and colleagues also discovered that pancreatic tumors surround themselves in dense tissue and isolate themselves from the body’s blood supply – a process that makes them resistant to conventional forms of chemotherapy. This breakthrough finding is informing Hingorani’s next phase of research: clinical trials to evaluate an effective treatment regimen that promises to boost survival rates.
"The median survival after diagnosis of pancreas cancer is four to six months," Hingorani said. "Should a patient be so lucky as to enroll in a clinical trial, most will only survive long enough to have one shot at an experimental treatment. I believe that every promising drug should be given a chance in the treatment of pancreas cancer, if there is sufficient scientific rationale to do so."