Alex Trebek's death shines light on pancreatic cancer research being done in Triangle to enhance treatment

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Monday, November 9, 2020
Alex Trebek's death sheds light on Triangle pancreatic cancer research
Alex Trebek's death sheds light on Triangle pancreatic cancer research

Legendary Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek died away Sunday morning, about 18 months after he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

The beloved television icon hosted the popular quiz game show since 1984, and was revered for his quick wit, steady poise and enduring passion.

Since his diagnosis, he's been an advocate for the disease, while continuing to host the show.

MORE: Alex Trebek offered support to other cancer patients, expressed peace with his future

"Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive diseases we try to manage as oncologists," said Dr. James Abbruzzese, the Chief of Medical Oncology at the Duke Cancer Institute.

Trebek himself was aware of the difficulties he faced; pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose as reliable screening is lacking for asymptomatic individuals.

Symptoms range from back pain, fatigue, weight loss and loss of appetite, blood clots, discolored stool and urine, and diabetes - sometimes newly diagnosed - that is difficult to control.

"At this point, the term cure is a very tenuous one. So if the cancer has already spread, the goal is to prolong survival and to prolong survival with good quality of life. That's achievable at this point. I think right now outside major breakthroughs going forward, we really can't talk about a cure, with the exception of a small number of patients that are able to have successful surgery. And we usually treat them with chemotherapy as well to try and prevent any cancer cells from coming back. But that's a small population. It's probably about 8 percent or so," said Abbruzzese.

Pancreatic cancer impacts men slightly more than women, with most cases in people 60 and older; Trebek was 78 when he announced his diagnosis. According to the American Cancer Society, despite making up just three percent of all diagnoses, it accounts for seven percent of deaths. It estimates 57,600 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year.

Risk factors can include smoking and being overweight, especially when a person was in their teens and twenties.

"Pancreatic cancer often comes to medical attention when patient are highly symptomatic, and the disease is already spread beyond the pancreas, which makes it exceedingly difficult to treat," Abbruzzese said.

Abbruzzese added there is far more research being conducted today than 20 years ago, giving him hope of enhanced treatment options. Some of that work is being done in the Triangle, including by CivaTech Oncology, a research firm in RTP that has developed a high powered dose of radiation targeting cancerous cells, to be used during surgery.

"There's so many organs and tissues that are vital in the area. Our device protects the healthy tissues because it's unidirectional," said Suzanne Babcock, CEO of CivaTech.

CivaTech have received grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute, to work on pancreatic cancer and lung cancer.

"We've used (CivaSheet) in borderline receptacle and receptacle patients only. So we're hoping we can learn more how to address later-stage disease and what's important there," said Babcock.

They have worked with 30 to 40 patients over the past four years as part of the clinical trial phase, saying they have yielded positive results.

To learn more about pancreatic cancer, click here.

World reacts to news of 'Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek's death