The first disease that we are tackling through this innovate approach is chronic pancreatitis, a painful and costly disease that is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. There is no treatment, but there is a group of researchers and clinicians at top medical centers around the world who are committed to collaborating to discover ways to prevent and treat the disease. Pancreatitis patients and their families stand ready to participate in therapy development and the National Pancreas Foundation is providing support.
What is Chronic Pancreatitis?
Chronic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, the organ that produces digestive enzymes and insulin. The inflammation leads to scarring, which causes severe digestive problems and, eventually, diabetes. Chronic pancreatitis patients experience extreme pain and are at exceptionally high risk for pancreatic cancer. Chronic pancreatitis affects about 150,000 Americans and over a million people worldwide. Chronic pancreatitis affects children and adults.
Unfortunately, for people suffering from chronic pancreatitis, there is no treatment. The only hope for some patients is removal of the pancreas in a total pancreatectomy, major surgery with significant risks and side effects.
What Causes Chronic Pancreatitis?
Chronic pancreatitis can be caused by a genetic defect, a physical injury to the pancreas, gallstones or other blockages, or medications. Alcohol and smoking can contribute to chronic pancreatitis. For a significant proportion of chronic pancreatitis patients the cause is unknown.
Many chronic pancreatitis patients first experience acute pancreatitis, a temporary inflammation of the pancreas that is very painful and can be deadly. Acute pancreatitis was the most common principal gastrointestinal diagnosis for hospital admissions in the US, costing over $2.6 billion in inpatient costs in 2007 alone¹.
Approximately 10-15% of people who suffer acute pancreatitis episodes develop chronic pancreatitis.
Potential causes of Chronic Pancreatitis:
High levels of calcium in the blood (known as hypercalcemia)
Decrease in the kidneys’ ability to filter waste and fluid from blood (chronic renal failure)
Physical injury to the pancreas
Blockages and obstructions to the pancreas
Alcohol and smoking may contribute
There is usually not just one factor causing pancreatitis. Rather, it is a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors that can create a “perfect storm” for chronic pancreatitis. Still, for a significant portion of patients the cause of pancreatitis is unknown.
Precision medicine is helping us better understand the causes of pancreatitis. Researchers are increasingly viewing chronic pancreatitis as a combination of lifestyle, environmental, and genetic factors.
1 Burden of Gastrointestinal Disease in the United States: 2012 Update, Gastroenterology. 2012 November ; 143(5): 1179–1187.e3. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2012.08.002.