Marcus gift inspires hope for pancreatic cancer patients

Nancy Wiener Marcus

By Erin Prather Stafford

Public perception of pancreatic cancer is a dire one. That’s with good reason, as the disease’s vague symptoms and its location deep in the abdomen rarely results in early diagnosis.

Some experts have estimated that pancreatic cancer could become the second leading cause of cancer death by 2020. A generous $100,000 gift from Nancy Wiener Marcus to Southwestern Medical Foundation aims to help change those odds.

Designated for the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Ms. Marcus’ donation supports the pursuit of new diagnostic tools and treatments by UT Southwestern faculty members. The program represents a partnership amongst several divisions, including gastroenterology, radiology, surgical oncology, and cancer genetics.

“Nancy’s lovely gift will provide families potentially affected by pancreatic cancer optimism and hope,” said Kathleen Gibson, President and CEO of Southwestern Medical Foundation. “Because of this early gift, which comes at a formative time, the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program can advance its critical work to safeguard patients’ health and prevent serious disease.”

A Dallas native, Ms. Marcus previously established the Nancy Wiener Marcus Fellowship in Gastroenterology in Honor of Dr. Mack Mitchell at UT Southwestern.

“Once again, Ms. Marcus has shown her abiding commitment to helping those affected by severe medical conditions of the gastrointestinal tract,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern. “We are grateful for her gift and determination to improve the outcomes of those afflicted by pancreatic cancer.”

Parts of the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program’s early diagnosis efforts include the evaluation of pancreatic cysts. Though not all are dangerous, some are premalignant lesions that can become pancreatic cancer, just as colon polyps can develop into colon cancer.

“Pancreatic cancer has the poorest survival rate of any major malignancy,” said Dr. Nisa Kubiliun, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, Director of Endoscopic Services, and Co-Director of the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program. “We’re incredibly thankful to Ms. Marcus for her contribution, which will help us unlock questions we’ve not been able to answer about this difficult disease.”

Physicians use cross-sectional imaging such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize the cyst or, in some cases, patients undergo a procedure called endoscopic ultrasound. In the latter, a fine-needle aspiration of the cyst is made to evaluate the fluid it contains. The fluid is screened for molecular markers associated with a greater risk for pancreatic cancer.

“This gift allows us to establish a robust research program focused on early detection and identification of promising biomarkers,” said Dr. Rebecca Minter, Professor of Surgery, Chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology’s Section of Hepatopancreatobiliary Surgery, and the Program’s other Co-Director. “Patients with precancerous pancreatic cysts and those with a hereditary condition that predisposes them to the development of pancreatic cancer will directly benefit as a result.”  

In addition to collaborating with peers at other academic medical centers to improve diagnosis and care of pancreatic cysts, UT Southwestern scientists will also submit the fluid drawn from patients’ cysts into a specialized biorepository. As discoveries are made about novel biomarkers, the patients’ samples can be re-tested for additional information to help guide individual care.

Both Drs. Kubiliun and Minter stressed that their mission is to create specialized care for diagnosis, management, and treatment of pancreatic cancer. It is a goal Ms. Marcus easily embraced.

“I have been concerned about the rise of pancreatic cancer for years and wanted to assist this outstanding group by ensuring the program could fully launch,” she said. “I hope my gift will inspire others to contribute funding to fight pancreatic cancer or support another area important to them so we can all make an impact in saving lives.”

Dr. Minter holds the Alvin Baldwin, Jr. Chair in Surgery.

Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.