Health & Fitness

UM cancer center opens state’s first Pancreatic Cancer Research Institute

The Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami is now home to the Pancreatic Cancer Research Institute.
The Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami is now home to the Pancreatic Cancer Research Institute. Miami Herald File

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine is now home to the country’s newest pancreatic cancer research institute.

Research began at the Pancreatic Cancer Research Institute at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center earlier this month after the institute’s official opening. Dr. Ashok K. Saluja, internationally renowned for his work with pancreatic research and treatment, will serve as the institute’s inaugural director after spending the last 10 years at the University of Minnesota.

The institute is now the only pancreatic-specific institute in Florida, with only a handful scattered across the country. Dr. Stephen Nimer, the director of the Sylvester center, said this is the first research institute of its scope within the cancer center, with multimillion-dollar investments made in staff, surgeons, experimental programs and precision medicine.

“We’re going to be doing the very best pancreatic cancer research that can be done in the world,” he said.

Pancreatic cancer, which occurs when tumors grow on the pancreas, is considered one of the deadlier cancers, with roughly 41,000 people out of the 53,000 men and women diagnosed with the disease in 2016 expected to die, according to the American Cancer Society. In the last decade, Apple founder Steve Jobs and Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze both died from the disease.

Saluja, who has dedicated his life to studying pancreatic cancer and other pancreatic diseases, said that research and funding has been focused on other, more prominent types of the disease, like breast and lung cancer.

“Pancreatic cancer was kind of treated like a stepchild — there was not much attention paid to it,” Saluja said. “That’s what brings us here. That’s why Sylvester has decided to do something like this.”

Plans for the institute began earlier this year and was solidified with the January 2015 hiring of former Vanderbilt scientist Dr. Nipun Merchant as the institute’s chief surgical officer and the hiring of Dr. Saluja and a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota. At the Minnesota school, Saluja and his group developed a drug, Minnelide, that has been found to be effective against pancreatic and several other cancers in the lab. The drug, which entered Phase I clinical trials in 2013, will come to UM with Saluja for continued development.

“He’s not only incredibly accomplished, but somebody who has the resources — and we’re adding to his resources — to address some of the really big questions in the field of cancer research,” Nimer said.

In addition to serving as the institute’s inaugural director, Saluja will also serve as a professor and vice chairman of surgery and a senior associate dean for research at the UM Miller School of Medicine. He will also continue to serve as the secretary-treasurer of the American Pancreatic Association head office, which will now move to Sylvester with him.

He said he was drawn to UM for the chance to expand pancreatic research and treatment in Florida and the philanthropic support from the community.

“Miami is a great place to be,” said Saluja, who also said he is looking forward to the opportunities in Miami and his first U.S. winter without snow. “It’s a happening place, both for my personal life and my academic life.”

Nimer said he hopes the center serves as a resource for not only further cancer research, but for patients looking to fight the disease and learn more about their diagnosis, adding that the staff of about 30 people is looking forward to a lot of patient phone calls.

“We’re very proud to have reached this day,” he said. “It’s a very thrilling day for Sylvester and everyone who works at Sylvester.”

Robert Glazier, 57, has been visiting Sylvester since his pancreatic cancer diagnosis in June 2013. While cancer is no longer showing up on his scans, he was there Wednesday for continued chemotherapy treatment. For Glazier, the added research and funding is a sign of hope for more advances to come.

“It could be a help to a lot of people,” said Glazier, a Miami attorney. “I hope I’m around long enough to benefit from the advances to come.”