How we are building a strong foundation in pancreatic cancer research

Dr. Peter Kang, executive director, clinical research, Merck Research Laboratories, shares his perspective on why there are reasons for hope.

May 1, 2019

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As a practicing oncologist and a researcher driven to find new hope for people with pancreatic cancer, there’s no such thing as a typical week for Dr. Peter Kang. One day you may find him in the clinic explaining options to a mother as she deals with the shock of learning that she has cancer. The next day, he’s back in the office, analyzing data to help inform the design of a pancreatic cancer clinical trial.

But for Dr. Kang, it is the human side of medicine and its intersection with science that drive him to continue his quest for better options for those suffering from one of the deadliest cancers. “Putting myself in my patients’ shoes is truly humbling. No matter how much progress we have made, every day I’m reminded that there is still more to do.”

It is this outlook that drives Dr. Kang’s research. Here, he shares more about what motivates his work and why he’s hopeful about the future.

What inspired you to become an oncologist?

When I was in medical school, my mentor was an oncologist, who had specialized in treating people with leukemia for over 30 years. Her office was filled with mementos given to her by patients who had passed away. One day, during a very emotional conversation, she confessed to me that she kept these items in plain sight as a visual reminder of those that had passed away despite her best efforts to help them. This deep sadness was a strong motivator for her because she said it’s what pushed her to keep going with her research.

You could say the reason I went into oncology research is condensed in that story. As an oncologist, you develop such deep relationships with your patients – and this closeness drives you to do everything you can to pursue more effective ways to help them.

How did you first become interested in pancreatic cancer research?

My clinical interest was always gastrointestinal (GI) oncology research, including pancreatic cancer, which can be difficult to detect early. Most patients are in an incurable state by the time they are diagnosed.

When I first entered the field, we were beginning to move towards developing more targeted ways to approach pancreatic cancer. We were getting smarter and precise in our research and it was leading to new discoveries. It was an exciting area of research and I wanted to be a part of driving greater understanding that could potentially lead to advances for this life-shattering cancer.

Tell us about Merck’s pancreatic cancer research program.

One of the most important things to understand is how limited the options are for someone who is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Progress in finding new options has been slow because this is such a challenging disease. At Merck, we know that people with pancreatic cancer desperately need more choices. That’s why we are excited about our partnership with AstraZeneca to study different ways to approach this disease. We’re at the point where we know more about pancreatic cancer, which is helping us to be more precise in our approach.

What motivates your work?

I take care of patients with advanced cancer, including patients with pancreatic cancer. Sometimes these patients are younger – in the prime of their life and raising families. It’s hard to put into words how painful it is when I have to tell them that their tumor is growing and there aren’t many options left. It is the most difficult conversation to have as an oncologist. It is also what drives me to keep going in my research. The experiences of these patients make me realize how much more we have to do to fight this disease. I’m inspired by my patients’ courage and bravery, which pushes me to do more and try harder to find the solutions they need.

Why is there reason for optimism?

At Merck, we’re exploring how precision medicine could help people with pancreatic cancer. Each new discovery we make is a stepping stone to yet another new discovery. We keep moving forward, connecting the dots, and building upon what we know to uncover new answers. I’m hopeful – and optimistic – that we are moving in the right direction.

  • In the U.S. this year, more than 50,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
  • Early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is difficult, as often there are no symptoms.
  • As many as 55% of patients are diagnosed at the metastatic stage.
  • The average age at the time of diagnosis is 70.