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Research initiative targets pancreatic cancer

Hospital, biotech firm, research group eye pancreatic disease

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a Framingham biotechnology company, and an international research group are joining in a research initiative aimed at improving the diagnosis and treatment for one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

The organizations will announce Tuesday that they are collaborating to find biological indicators, or biomarkers, of pancreatic cancer, which could help doctors diagnose the disease earlier and provide better treatments to sick patients. The hope is that earlier treatment would extend the lives of patients with pancreatic cancer, a disease that is hard to detect and almost always fatal. Most patients die within months of diagnosis.


“For us to make a difference in this disease, we fundamentally have to understand the disease much better, and we have to have a way of detecting it,” said Niven R. Narain, cofounder and president of Berg LLC, the Framingham company.

The third member of the partnership is Pancreatic Cancer Research Team, a network of 48 cancer centers around the globe. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

An estimated 49,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Within five years, the disease is expected to move from the fourth-leading cause of cancer death to the second, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Lung cancer is the leading cause.

Under the partnership, Harvard- affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess and the Pancreatic Cancer Research Team will collect tissue samples from hundreds of patients. Pathologists at Beth Israel Deaconess will study the samples then send them to Berg, which has a powerful and sophisticated computer system to process and analyze huge amounts of genetic, protein, and other data from the samples.

The system will hunt for variations in cells that contribute to pancreatic cancer, which, once identified, should allow doctors to attack the disease before it advances.


“This is truly a precision- medicine approach to pancreatic cancer,” Narain said. “The goal is when folks go for their annual [physical] exam, they’ll have these biomarkers to look for.”

Another goal is to improve the way patients with pancreatic cancer are treated, said Dr. James Moser , director of the research team at Beth Israel Deaconess’s Pancreas and Liver Institute.

By analyzing a patient’s cells, the project will help determine which drugs are appropriate for individual patients and which patients might be good candidates to participate in trials for new drugs.

Currently, “we put patients through a trial-and-error approach instead of a targeted approach,” Moser said. “Now we’ll have the capacity to actually change the treatment paradigm.”

Researchers will begin collecting data on 500 patients but are hoping to increase that number over time. “This is a potentially very large project,” Moser said.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey
. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.