Pancreatic Cancer May Have Finally Met Its Match

From the time he was a little boy, William Hawkins, MD, wanted to be a doctor. In college, he veered onto a side road toward engineering but quickly discovered he would rather direct his love of science and research toward helping people. And a doctor was born.

“Cancer was a natural focus for me,” Dr. Hawkins says. “It’s an unsolved problem that has touched my life, as well as too many people I know.”

Dr. Hawkins’ grandfather died of stomach cancer. A 12-year-old cousin died when Dr. Hawkins was just 13. And in grade school, Dr. Hawkins transferred schools and was assigned a desk of a student who had died of cancer.

“These experiences made a major impression on me at a young age,” Dr. Hawkins says. “While my grandfather died six months before I was born, everyone compared me to him. I was feisty like him.”

This feistiness, combined with an insatiable curiosity, led Dr. Hawkins to find his passion.

A Feisty Cancer Fighter Leads Significant Research Effort

“It all came together: pancreatic cancer is the worst of the worst cancers,” he says. “And as a surgeon and researcher, it was a challenge that excited me.”

For patients with pancreatic cancer, that passion and dedication is leading to lifesaving treatments.

Today, Dr. Hawkins is a pancreatic cancer surgeon at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. He is also a lead researcher of a national group of experts who are focusing on finding better treatments for pancreatic cancer.

Fewer than 8 percent of patients survive more than five years after they’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Dr. Hawkins and his partner research teams are trying to improve that statistic.

Building on years of research supported by donors to The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital and other sources, Dr. Hawkins’ team at Siteman recently received a significant grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to pursue new treatments through a multi-pronged approach.

The award, a prestigious Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant, will allow scientists to focus on the deadliest form of the disease, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, so they can develop more effective chemotherapies and a vaccine.

Donors Pave the Way for Research Progress in All Cancers

“With support from the Foundation through the Cancer Frontier Fund, we were able to conduct the studies that generated the vital preliminary data we needed to receive even larger, governmental grants,” Dr. Hawkins says. “We never could have gotten NCI grants such as this SPORE without initial support from donors. Donor-supported funds are what allowed us to take risks on new ideas and young scientists. Funding new researchers and new ideas is what led us to great progress.”

Dr. Hawkins was first funded by the Foundation in 2004 as a young researcher. Today, he is leading a national effort to better treat pancreatic cancer.

The return on investment from the Foundation is significant. “It led to four innovative clinical trials in a SPORE for a desperate disease,” Dr. Hawkins says. “Donor support also allows us to bring in more scientists who, in turn, can multiply their experience in other areas of research.”

Research partnerships, as well as donor support, are essential to breakthroughs that help more patients around the country.

“To get this SPORE, we developed collaborations with other physician researchers who have a shared disdain for cancer and are equally frustrated with the existing therapies for our patients,” Dr. Hawkins says. “This research is a shared passion of a lot of researchers.”

The pancreatic cancer SPORE at Siteman builds on the team’s already extensive knowledge of the disease to dramatically move better treatments forward.

“We’re learning that pancreatic cancer is actually about 20 different diseases and each has to be treated a little differently.” Dr. Hawkins says. “The things we learn in pancreatic cancer will likely have a wider impact for other types of cancer, as well.”

Creating Hope for More “Sweet Wins”

Dr. Hawkins says immunotherapy (such as a vaccine) is one of the most exciting developments in pancreatic cancer research and offers much hope.

“Hope is what keeps me going. If we kept doing what our predecessors were doing, we would continue to lose 90 percent of our patients. With this research, we can give our patients more options than ever to try to save their lives. Sometimes we win—and winning is sweet.”

He continues: “It’s hard to express our gratitude for donors’ belief in us and our ideas. I want to thank our donors for taking the risks it takes to innovate. We couldn’t do it without this support. Progress would be much slower without donor generosity.”

To support pancreatic cancer research, give online or call 314.286.0600.


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