We know the realities of pancreatic cancer.

It is a disease that caused 48,220 deaths in the United States in 2021, and 466,003 worldwide in 2020. It has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. And the number of cases and deaths have been increasing in recent years.

I know the toll of this disease intimately:  My mother, former Virginia state senator Emily Couric, died of pancreatic cancer at age 54 in 2001.

With pancreatic cancer, there’s no way to avoid the grim fact, the prognosis following a diagnosis is generally poor.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t good news in the fight against pancreatic cancer, however. I am proud to be part of a new, promising effort at the Inova Saville Cancer Screening and Prevention Center.

The effort is being coordinated by the Pancreatic Cancer Early Detection (PRECEDE) Consortium, a collaborative group of experts from across the globe who are conducting a clinical trial for those who have an inherited genetic risk for the disease.

A program like PRECEDE — and an increased awareness by the general public of who should consider genetic testing — has the potential to reduce the number of cases of pancreatic cancer, and the number of deaths from the disease.

10,000 high-risk patients in 10 years

The percentage of pancreatic cancer patients who survive five years after diagnosis is much lower than other major cancers — just 10 percent. One major reason is that the cancer is rarely detected before it reaches a later, more lethal stage.

PRECEDE was formed in 2019 with the mission of increasing the five-year survival rate from 10 percent to 50 percent within the next 10 years. The Saville Center was approved to begin accepting participants in February 2022, and is now one of more than 30 participating institutions worldwide.

PRECEDE aims to transform the early detection and prevention of pancreatic cancer by studying screening and prevention in patients who have genetic mutations that put them at particularly high risk for the disease. In all, the consortium plans to enroll 10,000 high-risk patients over 10 years.

We expect these trials will help us answer questions such as:

• Which genetic mutations confer a higher risk for pancreatic cancer?

• Which screening tests are most effective?

• Are there opportunities to better understand the genetic underpinnings of the disease?

• How can we take what we learn and apply it to the general population and reduce the overall incidence and mortality of this cancer?

At the Inova Saville Center, I consult with potential participants in PRECEDE along with a team that includes genetic counselors. We evaluate patients’ family history and genetic risk factors, and participants gain access to oncology-certified dieticians and screening techniques to detect the disease at early stages.

If enrolled in the PRECEDE study, patients will be seen by their healthcare team every six to 12 months to evaluate early detection approaches to prevent disease progression.

Participants will provide blood and biological samples, like saliva and cheek swabs, once or twice a year. In addition, participants may be recommended to undergo periodic screening tests, usually an MRI and endoscopic ultrasound, alternating annually.

The study cannot succeed without participation, of course. We encourage men and women age 18 or older to enroll if they fit one or more of the following criteria:

• One or more family member had pancreatic cancer

• They have a genetic variant that increases the risk for pancreatic cancer

• They have a personal history of pancreatic cancer

An achievable goal

So far at Saville Center, we have enrolled more than 30 patients in the study. Internationally, PRECEDE just reached 3,000 participants, putting the consortium well ahead of schedule in reaching its goal of 10,000.

Early data from PRECEDE and elsewhere leaves me optimistic. Can we really increase the five-year survival rate from 10 to 50 percent? I really believe it’s doable.

We’re getting better at identifying patients who are at higher risk for pancreatic cancer, and though it’s early, the accumulating data says that when we screen them, we can save lives.

I’m also excited that the Saville Center is involved in an international, collaborative group of physicians who are passionate and dedicated to reducing the deaths caused by pancreatic cancer. My interest, of course, is both professional and personal.

We’re seeing increasing evidence that pancreatic cancer is preventable and curable — and that is news that people should know.

If you are interested in joining the PRECEDE study at Saville Center, visit our clinical trials page to check your eligibility and contact our team.

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