A scientific team led by Cedars-Sinai has been awarded $10 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to investigate the risk factors and behaviors that contribute to pancreatic diseases and develop potential treatments and lifestyle recommendations to prevent them, the institution announced Wednesday.
The pancreas, a gland that lies behind the stomach on the left side of the belly, produces enzymes to aid digestion and the hormones insulin and glucagon, which control the body’s blood sugar level.
Inflammation of the pancreas, called pancreatitis, occurs when the pancreas-produced enzymes damage the gland. The condition usually is caused by gallstones or heavy alcohol use. Pancreatitis is the focus of Cedars’ investigation. The incidence of pancreatitis has grown over the last several years. Hospital admissions due to acute pancreatitis — the sudden swelling of the pancreas-increased 16.4% in the U.S. from 2002 to 2012, according to research published in the journal Pancreas in April 2017.
Acute pancreatitis prompts about 275,000 annual U.S. hospital admissions. It can last for days and may cause permanent organ damage. The long-term, or chronic, form is linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
There currently are no approved treatments or preventative measures to combat the progressive and chronic forms of pancreatitis, which can cause significant patient suffering, said the team’s lead investigator, Dr. Stephen J. Pandol, director of Basic and Translational Pancreas Research at Cedars-Sinai.
“We hope our study projects will reveal how recurring and chronic pancreatitis develops in patients, due to lifestyle factors such as alcohol abuse and smoking,” Pandol said. “The goal is to use our enhanced understanding to develop new experimental therapeutics to prevent the development of pancreatic cancers.”
The grant will fund four projects:
Project 1 will try to identify pancreatitis triggers that can be studied in the laboratory and used to update lifestyle recommendations for patients with pancreatitis.
Project 2 aims to determine the effects of alcohol and smoking on pancreas cells and substructures within those cells.
Project 3 will study the involvement of the immune system and inflammatory responses in acute and chronic pancreatitis.
Project 4 will investigate the effects of alcohol, smoking and genetic risk factors on the cells of the pancreas. They also will study the potential effects of using simvastatin, a Food & Drug Administration-approved statin medication used to improve cholesterol levels, as a potential treatment option for those with pancreatic disorders.
“We are delighted that our expert team of scientists and clinicians will be breaking new ground as they energetically tackle the challenges of this serious disease,” said Shlomo Melmed, executive vice president of Academic Affairs and dean of the Medical Faculty at Cedars-Sinai.
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