Pancreatic cancer research

Artificial Intelligence: A Game-Changer for Pancreatic Cancer Research

By Vanessa Steil- February 25, 2020


What does artificial intelligence (AI) have to do with pancreatic cancer research? It turns out, a lot. AI refers to machines programmed to mimic human reasoning with the goal of learning from failure and providing the best recommendation for a specific subject. In the case of pancreatic cancer, a disease that is often detected too late, and has a five-year survival rate in the single digits, this revolutionary technology could be a game-changer for patients.

 Why is AI Important to Pancreatic Cancer Research?

The Lustgarten Foundation, the world’s largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research, has directed $188 million since inception more than 20 years ago to finding better treatment options for patients and funds some of the most innovative researchers in the field to improve survival outcomes and create a robust community of long-term survivors. To help achieve this goal, the Foundation supports the work of Dr. Elliot Fishman, Professor of Radiology and Radiological Science at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Dr. Fishman’s research has shown computers can be trained to detect pancreatic tumors in CT scans, the most commonly used imaging modality for the initial evaluation of suspected pancreatic cancer.

What is the Felix Project?

The location of the pancreas deep inside the abdomen makes detecting pancreatic cancer difficult, even for experienced radiologists, especially when they aren’t specifically looking for it. The Felix Project (named for Harry Potter’s Felix Felicis, also called “Liquid Luck,” a magical potion that makes the drinker lucky), is a technological breakthrough in artificial intelligence cancer detection that is working to change that. Led by Dr. Fishman, the project, which is now in its fourth year and has received approximately $6 million in funding from the Foundation, uses sophisticated computer programs that teach themselves to read CT scans and are better able to detect smaller pancreatic tumors, so diagnosis and subsequent treatment can be initiated much sooner.

“The Felix Project has the potential to change how CT scans are looked at in the future and improve early detection methods and patient outcomes,” said Dr. Fishman.  

How Can the Felix Project Detect Pancreatic Cancer Earlier?

It is estimated that approximately 40 million Americans undergo abdominal CT scans each year—for everything from a car accident to back pain. Therein lies the opportunity to be able to detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage, possibly before a person even develops symptoms. The practical applications for the Felix Project could be endless, with organs from the kidney to the liver eventually benefiting from the enhanced screening techniques being developed right now for the pancreas. Next steps include gathering scans of tumors measuring less than 1 centimeter, to train the computer to find tumors much smaller than current standards, as well as analyzing pancreatic cysts and neuroendocrine tumors.

The Lustgarten Foundation is the only non-profit in the country to have four dedicated pancreatic cancer research laboratories, meaning more time and talent are being directed to finding a cure for pancreatic cancer. Promising research like the Felix Project offers new hope to future patients that their disease could be caught at an earlier stage when surgery is a more likely option, leading to better survival outcomes. To learn more about the pancreatic cancer research, other early detection cancer research efforts, and patient resources at the Lustgarten Foundation, as well as treatment options, contact us.

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