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A new hope for pancreatic cancer

“Project Survival” will leverage Berg’s machine learning research platform with the clinical expertise of Beth Israel Deaconess and The Pancreatic Cancer Research Team (PCRT)

BOSTON – It’s a sad fact that most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer feel their situation is hopeless. According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly 47,000 Americans were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year with a projected five-year survival rate of 6.7 percent. Further, because pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at such a late stage, as many as 70 percent of newly diagnosed patients, including those with even the smallest tumors forego potential life saving treatments.

But the future may be significantly brighter for these patients. A new research collaboration between pharmaceutical company Berg, the Cancer Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and the Pancreatic Cancer Research Team (PCRT) managed by Cancer Research And Biostatistics (CRAB), announced it will work to identify biomarkers that can help doctors develop treatment plans for individual patients based on which treatment options are best, and bring a truly targeted approach to fighting pancreatic cancer where none has existed before.

“Although pancreatic cancer would seem to be a hopeless disease, from those of us who actually work with it, we know otherwise,” said A. James Moser, MD, director of the research team for Beth Israel’s new Pancreas and Liver Institute and an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. “We know that there are patients who have very indolent forms of metastatic pancreatic cancer. We haven’t patients that ‘shouldn’t’ be cured that are cured. And with the overall survival unfortunately being so short, any biomarker signature might be actionable at a clinical level very quickly.”

Dubbed “Project Survival,” the groups involved bring significant capabilities to the collaboration. Berg, which first suggested the partnership in a smaller-scale aimed at developing a pancreatic diagnostic, was easily convinced to enter into a broader collaboration. It brings its Interrogative Biology platform, which takes a machine learning approach to systems biology and can serve as a discovery engine, as well as potentially providing clinical decision support to doctors.

“The fundamental thing about Berg, is we want to go back to look at individual patients, by phenotype, to understand why patients diagnosed in the same manner have such different outcomes,” said Niven R. Narain co-founder, president and chief technology officer of Berg. “What is allowing us to get this done is artificial intelligence to make sense of data and to create models that currently don’t exist. This partnership is taking a true precision medicine approach to understand and treat pancreatic cancer.”

PCRT’s sole focus is pancreatic cancer and it brings to the table some of the world’s leading researchers in the field as well as an international network of 48 cancer centers. Further, PCRT has conducted clinical trials, has experience in FDA registration and, along with BIDMC, has received a grant to establish a bio repository for pancreatic cancer research. Together, the two organizations will design clinical trials and provide both healthy and treated pancreatic tissue, bio-fluids, and treatment results from patients to Berg to analyze. “We were already, ready, willing and scientifically able to make this happen from day one,” Moser noted.

In the short term, Moser hopes the collaboration can bring precision medicine to the treatment of pancreatic cancer that clinicians have available for other forms of cancer. “We do have some therapies currently that work, but the problem is the trial and error selection process under which they are applied,” he said. “I think the short-term view should be can we use precision medicine to identify patients that can respond and will respond to existing therapies today, to help them. Then, long-term, use those wins to understand what the new therapies should look like.”