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New options in the fight against pancreatic cancer

by: CONTRIBUTED BY PROVIDENCE HEALTH AND SERVICES - Michael Gough, Ph.D., talks with Marka R. Crittenden M.D., Ph.D., in the research lab at Providence Cancer Center. Dr. Gough has received a new $1.6 million grant to continue his immunotherapy research in treating pancreatic cancer.In what’s being described as a significant show of support for immunotherapy research in the treatment of cancer, the National Institutes of Health has awarded a $1.6 million, five-year grant to a Providence Cancer Center researcher.

Michael Gough, Ph.D., is a scientist with the Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center in the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute. He will use the funding to further his work, exploring how chemotherapy and radiation interact with the immune system during treatment of pancreatic cancer.

At a time when NIH grant competition is growing increasingly stiff as federal funding decreases, the agency typically only funds the top 9 or 10 percent of the applicants. The requests are ranked by a panel of scientists on the study’s innovation, significance, scientific approach and the research team or institution applying for the grant.

“I am very pleased,” Gough said. “This is significant. It means the NIH found our work important and the concept

promising.”

Gough’s work will focus on how radiation and chemotherapy interact with the immune system in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

“It is very exciting that this study uses the skills of an interdisciplinary team of Providence experts,” Gough said. “We will have researchers, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists and surgeons deeply involved in this work — all of which will benefit our patients with pancreatic cancer.”

In the first phase of the trial, Gough will add tumor-specific vaccine immunotherapy to the chemotherapy and radiation, with hopes the treatment will shrink the tumor before surgery. The vaccine is currently being developed in the Providence laboratory of fellow researcher Keith Bahjat, Ph.D.

Gough will study how to optimize the radiation and chemotherapy to allow for the strongest immune response possible. Typical chemotherapy and radiation often knocks out a patient’s immune system for months or years, dramatically reducing the body’s ability to help fight cancer. By finding the right balance of chemotherapy and radiation, and allowing the immune system to contribute to the fight rather than being eliminated from it, the patient should have a better outcome.

Nearly 40,000 people will die of pancreatic cancer this year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. The rates of this cancer have been slowly increasing over the last decade.

“Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal malignancies; we definitely need new options to fight it,” Gough said. “This grant will help us find new options.”