Antonio Baines, Ph.D., is a cancer pharmacologist at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). He is an associate professor in the department of biological and biomedical sciences with a joint appointment in the cancer research program in the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute (JLC-BBRI). He began working at NCCU in 2006.
What is the pancreas and what does it do?
The pancreas is a gastrointestinal tract organ that has two main functions. It makes various hormones such as insulin that helps to control blood sugar levels in your body. It also makes numerous digestive enzymes that get carried into the small intestine to aid in digestion.
Is it difficult to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages?
Yes. There is no cancer biomarker to detect pancreatic cancer. A biomarker is a biological molecule, such as a protein, that can be detected and be an indication of the presence of the cancer. A big area of research is to try to find a specific biomarker to detect pancreatic cancer early. This cancer is usually found by accident. When it is found by accident, the cancer is usually late stage and has progressed far enough along that it is causing issues, such as pain.
Is pancreatic cancer difficult to treat?
Yes. Surgery is the primary way to treat cancer, especially if it is in the early stage. But when it is found, it has usually already spread or metastasized to other parts of the body and surgery is not an option.
Chemotherapy is the next step. The problem with chemotherapy is many pancreatic cancers are resistant to or develop drug resistance to chemotherapy.
What percentage of cancer cases in the United States are from pancreatic cancer?
3% of all cancers in the United States.
That seems like a small percentage?
It is also the third most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States. It is believed it will become the second most common between 2025 and 2030.
What is the survival rate for someone with pancreatic cancer?
The five-year survival rate of patients with pancreatic cancer is 12%. When I started over 15 years ago it was 6%. It has become better but it still has one of the lowest survival rates of most major cancers. If you catch the cancer early, your survival rate is much greater.
What is your goal as a cancer pharmacologist?
Try to find potential new drug targets that we can make drugs against; a protein, an enzyme, one or more cell signaling pathways. Stimulate the cancer cell to die or prevent it from growing or to sensitize it to drugs. Drug resistance is the biggest problem.
Is pancreatic cancer more common among African American people?
Unfortunately, it is. There is a huge health disparity with pancreatic cancer in African Americans. They have a 50-90% higher incidence of pancreatic cancer compared to Caucasians. It is usually diagnosed at a much later stage in African Americans than other groups. Also, African Americans have fewer surgeries performed for the disease than other groups.
What, if anything, can the public do to decrease its risk of pancreatic cancer?
For cancer in general, try to live as healthy a lifestyle as you can. Avoid smoking and being excessively overweight, eat more fruits and vegetables and less processed meats and red meat. Physical activity is important. Try to reduce stress. Stay on top of medical check-ups. If anything seems of feels weird with your body, get checked it out as soon as possible.
It is important to make sure you trust your physicians. If you feel you are not getting the best care, try to find another one. Not all physicians are the same. Studies have shown there can be some implicit bias with how some physicians treat their patients.
What should a person do if they contract cancer?
If you find yourself with cancer, I encourage trying to get connected to a cancer center known for performing surgeries and treating pancreatic cancer. Go to someone with a track record of treating pancreatic cancer.
Additionally, consider reaching out to advocacy groups such as PanCan (Pancreatic Cancer Action Network). They are great resources for patients, survivors and family members.
Are there any promising treatments for pancreatic cancer?
Cancers usually have mutations, which are mistakes in the DNA that makes them do what they do. One of those mutations is called K-Ras. K-Ras has been found to be mutated in about 40% of all cancers and almost 90% of pancreatic cancer cells. It has been focused on for more than 40 years as a drug target. About three years ago, scientists were able to target this mutation. Drug companies are now developing K-Ras inhibitors to treat various cancers including pancreatic cancer.
Also, there are clinical trials focused on using mRNA vaccines (similar technology used against COVID) to target proteins with the hope of stimulating the immune system to recognize pancreatic cancer.