Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer

3D structure of a cancer-promoting protein
Pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at an advanced stage and few effective treatment options are available. Survival rates have remained low for the past 40 years.
Our researchers are discovering how pancreatic cancer cells become resistant to current therapies. Our goal is to find more effective treatments to improve outcomes for people with pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer research at WEHI

Our researchers are:

  • Identifying new drugs to treat pancreatic cancer.
  • Finding ways to overcome resistance to current therapies.
  • Understanding the molecular mechanisms why cells metastasise.
  • Understanding the role of the immune system in fighting pancreatic cancer.
  • Developing biomarkers to allow early warning of disease.
  • Developing a pancreatic cancer registry to accelerate research and better understand the disease.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is the abnormal, uncontrolled growth of epithelial cells in the pancreas.

The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen, located between the stomach and spine. It has two different types of glands:

  • Exocrine glands make enzymes that break down food so it can be used by the body. The enzymes are secreted from the pancreas into the intestines.
  • Endocrine glands make hormones that regulate blood sugar levels. The hormones are released directly from the pancreas into the bloodstream.

Most pancreatic cancers start in the exocrine glands.

People with pancreatic cancer usually have no obvious symptoms in the early stages, and there is currently no screening program to identify people at risk of the disease. As a result, pancreatic cancer is often not diagnosed until it is quite advanced. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat and only seven per cent of people survive five years after diagnosis.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer arises through accumulation of genetic damage. Recent studies have revealed many different genetic changes in pancreatic cancer. These studies show there is a great deal of variation between individual cases of pancreatic cancer.

Understanding the genes that drive pancreatic cancer will allow more personalised treatments tailored to the particular genetic changes in each individual.

Pancreatic cancer risk factors

Some of the factors that increase a person’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer include:

  • Ageing
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Diabetes
  • Long-term inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis)
  • Family history of pancreatic, ovarian or colon cancer

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

If pancreatic cancer is detected at an early stage it can often be treated by surgery. Chemotherapy may also be used to reduce the chance of the cancer returning. In cases where the disease is more advanced or has spread beyond the pancreas, surgery may not be effective and treatment is focused on relieving symptoms of the disease.

There is an urgent need for new therapies for pancreatic cancer. Only a handful of new drugs have been approved for the treatment of pancreatic cancer in the last decade. Current drugs only improve survival for a small proportion of people with pancreatic cancer, and only for a short time before the cancer becomes resistant to treatment.

Our researchers are using genetic analyses and human organoid cultures to identify better drugs and drug combinations for treating pancreatic cancer. We aim to improve outcomes for people with this disease.

Support for people with pancreatic cancer

WEHI researchers are not able to provide specific medical advice to individuals.

For more information about how pancreatic cancer is treated and for patient support, please visit the Pancare Foundation, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Cancer Council Victoria or consult your medical specialist.


Associate Professor Sumitra Ananda

Associate Professor Sumitra Ananda at the Institute
Associate Professor
Clinical Research Fellow

Professor Peter Gibbs

Peter Gibbs in his office
Joint Division Head
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