Salk Institute scientist receives award to fund research on tobacco use, pancreatic cancer connection


Salk Institute assistant professor and Carmel Valley resident Dannielle Engle received a New Investigator Award from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, giving her $1 million over three years to study the connection between tobacco use and pancreatic cancer.

Dannielle Engle

“It’s a really prestigious award and is something that obviously I’m very passionate about,” said Engle, an Omaha native who completed her graduate training at UC San Diego. “It’s great to be able to secure this type of funding, especially during the pandemic. A lot of these foundations and programs are really struggling to meet their fundraising goals, and several of these programs have actually canceled their 2020 funding cycles. So to be able to have this award during such a critical time has been a huge relief and a huge opportunity.”

According to a Salk Institute news release, smoking is a key risk factor for pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, a common type of pancreatic cancer.

“There’s a big association between tobacco use and pancreatic cancer,” said Engle, who lived in Del Mar before settling in Carmel Valley.

Engle also said her interest in researching tobacco and pancreatic cancer stems from her father, who served in the U.S. Army, and uncle, who served in the Korean Army. Both died from pancreatic cancer. Research has shown links between military service and higher rates of pancreatic cancer.

“This was really something I wanted to focus on during my training all the way to when I was able to secure my own position as an independent investigator,” said Engle, who is also a biology professor at UC San Diego.

Her previous accolades include the NIH NCI Career Transition K99/R00 award, the California Breast Cancer Research Program Fellowship and the UC San Diego Chancellor’s Fellowship, according to a Salk Institute news release.

Engle’s work could help determine whether carcinogens in tobacco increase inflammation and promote cellular stress leading to tumor development. She and her team will use a type of 3D model known as pancreatic organoids to study changes in the development of tumors as a result of exposure to tobacco.

Some of the goals are “to establish organoid models for studying the effect of tobacco on cells and evaluate how different levels of tobacco exposure impact the formation and spread of pancreatic tumors,” according to the Salk Institute.

“We know quite a bit about the cellular changes that are happening in the cell that becomes cancer, but we don’t know nearly as much about what’s happening in the surrounding environment in that scar tissue,” Engle said. “That’s really what we hope to study with this new funding.”