Dr. Sita Kugel receives grant to study aggressive form of pancreatic cancer

A new type of NCI award will allow her to pursue novel therapeutic avenues
photo portrait of Sita Kugel
Dr. Sita Kugel of Fred Hutch studies the biology of pancreatic cancer. Fred Hutch file

The deadly nature of most pancreatic tumors is well known. Less than 10% of patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, or PDA, will survive five years past diagnosis. Recent molecular analyses of PDA has shown that a patient’s prognosis changes depending on their tumor’s molecular characteristics. One subtype of PDA, dubbed quasi-mesenchymal PDA, or QM-PDA, has the worst prognosis of all.

A new research grant enables pancreatic cancer researcher Dr. Sita Kugel to tackle this challenge.

“There is a clear unmet need for developing our understanding of this subset as well as novel therapies,” said Kugel, a scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.


Kugel’s new funding from the National Cancer Institute will enable her to better understand the disease and help address the lack of effective treatments for patients with QM-PDA. Called MERIT, for Method to Extend Research Time, the award is a new type of funding mechanism aimed at early-career faculty like Kugel, who established her laboratory at Fred Hutch in 2017. She will receive $400,000 per year for an initial five-year stretch, after which she’ll have the opportunity to extend her project for two more years.  

“This source of stable funding will allow my laboratory to explore the biology of pancreatic cancer in greater depth and take on higher-risk, higher-reward projects,” she said.

Her work will focus on a protein known as SIRT6. This protein makes molecular modifications to DNA packaging proteins that change whether genes are turned on or off. Kugel’s work has shown that SIRT6 levels are greatly reduced in QM-PDA. This suggests that SIRT6 — and changes to how DNA is packaged — may contribute to the development of QM-PDA and to its aggressive nature.

Kugel aims to untangle how SIRT6 is lost and how this contributes to development of the QM-PDA subtype of pancreatic cancer. Armed with these insights, she plans to work toward new therapeutics tailored to this tumor subtype.

“Currently all subsets of pancreatic cancer are treated with toxic chemotherapy, resulting in poor prognosis. Changing the current clinical paradigm will allow us to provide specific patients with targeted therapies which are likely to be both more effective and have fewer side effects, thus potentially improving quality of life and survival,” Kugel said.

Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at srichar2@fredhutch.org.

Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

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