FARGO — Some of the most prominent U.S. researchers who study one of the deadliest cancers gathered in Fargo Monday, July 8, for a conference at North Dakota State University to share data and discuss their work.
NDSU, with help from the National Institutes of Health, has quietly become a player in the battle against pancreatic cancer. Researchers from Mayo Clinic, University of Texas' MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and others visited Fargo for the symposium.
Since 2016, students and researchers at NDSU have been guiding a multi-million dollar grant from National Institutes of Health to fund the first disease-specific research center at the university.
Matt Confeld, a graduate student working with the program, is looking at a high tech new way to deliver chemotherapy to patients. He said it wasn't until a recent conference, when a pancreatic cancer patient came to speak, that he realized the significance of the work.
"One of them came up and said: 'I am here, (a) doctor gave me a five-month diagnosis and three years later I am still here.' And that really touched me and I got chills just talking about it now," Confeld said.
Also at the conference was the Mayo Clinic's Gloria Peterson, who specializes in genetics and early detection of pancreatic cancer. She told the crowd Monday that the number of people getting the disease will grow as baby boomers age. For example, 20 years ago, just over 28,000 were people were diagnosed each year, but this year, 56,000 cases have been diagnosed.
Researchers at the conference said progress is slow but promising.
"Science is incremental, rarely is there an 'aha!' 'eureka!' where everything dramatically changes. Everyone is building on each other's findings," Peterson said.
It's not just physicians who attended the conference. Engineers, biotech and biomedical engineering experts, computer science specialists and nanotechnology experts also took part.
Among them was Dr. Tony Hollingsworth, a world-renowned researcher from the University of Nebraska who started his research decades ago when there were just a dozen people studying the fatal disease.
He said one of the hardest parts of advocating for more research on the cancer is getting heard.
"With pancreatic cancer, there is no voice," Hollingsworth said. "With breast and prostate cancer, there are survivors or people who can speak up."
Still, he pushes on with his work.
"You have to be resilient and you have to realize you are swimming upstream and stay the course," Hollingsworth said.