Dr. Darren Sigal, a cancer physician and researcher at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, spends much of his time helping patients battle pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and those diagnosed with the disease have only a 4 or 5 percent chance of surviving five years.
“The numbers are challenging,” said Sigal, a Carmel Valley resident for the past nine years.
However, in recent years, researchers have come up with a number of promising new treatments for pancreatic cancer, and some of them are already helping patients.
For example, the drug Abraxane was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in September 2013 for late-stage or metastatic pancreatic cancer. According to Sigal, the one-year survival rate of patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer, which has spread to other parts of the body, has improved from 10 percent to about 30 percent, thanks to the drug.
One of the characteristics of pancreatic cancer that makes it particularly difficult to treat is that its tumors form a “shell” that can block standard chemotherapy drugs, said Sigal. Abraxane can target and dissolve the shell, he said.
Other treatments being studied, some of which are close to approval by the FDA, would attack tumors in different ways, or degrade the tumors’ defense mechanisms, making them more susceptible to the body’s immune system.
“There’s a lot of promise,” Sigal said.
As a clinician and researcher, he works with his colleagues at Scripps on providing clinical trials for patients, which can help develop new treatments for pancreatic cancer and also help the patients fight the disease.
Sigal is part of a group of doctors from different medical disciplines at Scripps called the pancreas and bile duct cancer group. His colleagues include doctors Walt Coyle, Randy Schaffer, Jon Fisher, Warren Reidel and Ray Lin, along with nurse navigator Jane Williams.
The group communicates daily by phone, text and email, and meets face-to-face monthly for roundtable discussions, to help ensure that their pancreatic cancer patients follow the best course of treatment available.
The developments in the battle against pancreatic cancer are fairly new; according to Sigal, as recently as two years ago, only two drugs were approved for treating the disease.
Scripps doctors treat several hundred patients who have pancreatic cancer each year. The volume of patients makes Scripps a good candidate for clinical trials of potential new therapies, Sigal said.
He also works with researchers at the Scripps Research Institute, who are conducting pre-clinical studies to examine the characteristics of pancreatic tumor cells with the aim of discovering new treatments.
Outside the clinic, Sigal volunteers with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, giving educational talks to patients and their families. The group has also designated Scripps Clinic as a “center of excellence” for treatment of pancreatic cancer, because of the clinic’s patient volume and expertise regarding the disease.
Through the clinical trials and new drugs recently available to treat pancreatic cancer, said Sigal, it is his observation that “patients are living longer and better lives.”