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The Canadian Cancer Society is investing $12 million in research, $2.5 million of which is for the particularly deadly pancreatic cancer

06 March 2014

Montreal -

A mutant gene (BRCA), well-known for its role in breast cancer, is also involved in some pancreatic cancers. One of the 10 new research projects funded (for a total of $12 million overall) by the Canadian Cancer Society is based on this discovery. This study could lead to the first personalized treatment for some people with pancreatic cancer, one of the most hard-to-treat forms of the disease.


Rimouski resident Caroline Chachai has this relatively unknown cancer. After her diagnosis in 2012, the preschool teacher underwent six months of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. But, as the case often is, her pancreatic cancer was resistant and recurred in September 2013. At 46, she decided to stop treatments, which are unlikely to save her life, and be spared of the side effects so that she could fully enjoy her final moments with her partner and her grown-up children.

Few survive this rare, but particularly deadly cancer (in 2013, there were 1,380 cases and 1,140 deaths in Quebec). Only 8% of patients are still alive five years after their diagnosis (for all cancers, the average five-year survival rate is 63%). “It is crucial to invest more in research so that patients can benefit from the kind of progress that has been made in other types of cancer,” says Melody Enguix, Scientific Communication Advisor at the Canadian Cancer Society – Quebec Division. “That’s why we’re proud that two of our new grants for $2.5 million are being awarded to pancreatic cancer research.”  

Dr Steven Gallinger, a surgical oncologist at the University Health Network and cancer researcher at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, has received a new Impact Grant to study the link between BRCA mutations and pancreatic cancer. About 4% of people with pancreatic cancer carry mutations in the BRCA gene, which is better known for its connection to breast cancer. This small subgroup of patients may respond to treatments where other patients do not.

“With this research, we are taking the important first steps in understanding the causes of the disease and potentially developing a personalized treatment for this group of patients,” Dr Gallinger says.

The aha moment

Dr Gallinger discovered the possible link between pancreatic cancer and the BRCA gene by chance and describes it as one of those famous “a-ha” moments. One of his patients who carried a mutation of the BRCA-2 gene first had breast cancer and then pancreatic cancer. “You only have a couple of those in a career.” This prompted the doctors to start testing new patients for the mutation, finding that a small but significant percentage of patients carry it.

Dr Gallinger’s research team is one of a handful in the world examining the connection between BRCA and pancreatic cancer. The new study will build on his previous findings BRCA-mutation-linked pancreatic cancer is one of the more treatable forms of the disease.

Dr Gallinger will now study tumour samples from 300 pancreatic cancer patients to better understand the BRCA-ness of pancreatic cancer and identify improved treatments for this group of patients. To do this, the research team will:

  • identify which cases to target
  • determine how to identify these cases
  • pinpoint the reasons treatment fails over time
  • identify which available treatments, or combination of treatments, are most effective.

Among the 10 projects (complete list) that the CCS will be investing in is one by McGill University’s Dr Nahum Sonenberg:

Dr Sonenberg is studying drugs that target protein-building machinery inside cancer cells. He wants to test some of these drugs that are already in clinical trials to understand exactly how they work, determine whether combining them can enhance their anti‑cancer effects, and identify those that can prevent the spread of cancer, which is a major cause of cancer‑related death. He is also searching for biomarkers to help clinicians predict whether people with cancer will respond to these drug treatments.

Through our generous donors and gold standard peer-review process, the Canadian Cancer Society funds the best cancer research in Canada. Our funded researchers work in universities, hospitals and research centres across the country and are mapping new ways to change cancer forever. For more information, please visit cancer.ca or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1-888-939-3333; (TTY, 1 866 786-3934).

The Canadian Cancer Society is a national community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website www.cancer.ca or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.

For more information, please contact:

André Beaulieu

Spokesperson and Senior Advisor, Public Relations

Canadian Cancer Society

Quebec Division

Phone: (514) 393-3444