"Extraordinary responders" could hold clues to helping others with pancreatic cancer

Unlocking clues to pancreatic cancer treatment

New York — It's estimated that more than 56,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year and nearly 46,000 will die from it. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek are two well-known patients who have fought it. 

But a group of patients, who are not celebrities, could help change the future of treatment for others.

Three years ago, Arnold Simon's doctor told him he had "advanced" pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. 

"I asked what my prognosis was and she said four to six months," Simon said.

But Simon is a rare pancreatic cancer survivor known as an "extraordinary responder." He had a dramatic response to chemotherapy and his tumors completely disappeared.

"I just had a scan last Tuesday and I was all clear," Simon said.

Dr. Elizabeth Jaffee at Johns Hopkins believes figuring out why Simon is "all clear" will provide clues to treating others. To do that, she's using a new approach with a collaboration called the Convergence Institute.

"We needed more than cancer biologists and cancer doctors, what we really needed was to bring in experts in other fields," Jaffee said.

So now, experts in physics, mathematics, and other fields have joined the fight, including astrophysicist Alex Szalay. He used a decade's worth of computerized data from one telescope to create a virtual map of over 200 million galaxies.

"This is like the Google of the sky," Szalay said.

Szalay and his colleagues are using the same approach that helped them map galaxies to explore the interactions between cancer and the immune cells that fight them. He hopes examining "extraordinary responders" like Simon will help researchers figure out why his immune cells were able to kill the cancer.

"It gives me the goosebumps," he said. "You know working on the sky was very exciting. All the things I've learned that can actually save lives."

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook