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Pancreatic Cancer Survivor and Pancreatic Cancer Advocate Meet Wistar Scientist Focused on Research Advances

January 22, 2024

Wistar’s Dr. Rahul Shinde with PanCAN’s Nick Pifani and Bruce Platt Rally Around Common Bond

Meet Nick Pifani who came to Wistar to share his story of surviving pancreatic cancer; he was one of several in his family who faced pancreatic cancer and won the battle. Bruce Platt, PanCAN volunteer advisory board member, lost his mother to pancreatic cancer. Nick and Bruce met Wistar’s Dr. Rahul Shinde, a 2022 PanCAN Career Development Award recipient, to learn more about his promising pancreatic cancer research.

“We want to tell the great stories—about the doctors that save lives and the researchers that ultimately bring new drugs, therapies and standards of care to patients,” said Nick. “We also want to tell positive stories of survival.”

Nick and Bruce are Philadelphia ambassadors for the local PanCAN cause, they connect cancer survivors with resources while building awareness and understanding. Pifani and Platt both see the need for a paradigm shift on how patients process a pancreatic cancer diagnosis as well as help the public to understand that pancreatic cancer can be treated effectively.

“My mother was diagnosed in 2004. I became a caregiver in 2006. She passed in 2009—she almost made five years,” said Bruce. “Back then, there were no real treatment options. The doctor basically said to my mother, ‘Go get your affairs in order,’—can you imagine the shock of that?”

When Bruce’s mother passed, he wanted to be her voice and in 2010 went to his first PanCAN meeting. Every year he’s become more involved. Bruce’s passion for the cause led to political action and making headway on pancreatic cancer awareness and support with legislators like Congressman Brendan Boyle and U.S. Senator Bob Casey. Along the way Bruce met many people diagnosed and fighting pancreatic cancer who ultimately became his friends. “I’ve met and become close to amazing people, but you can also get to a point where you think, I’ve done everything I can do. But if I ever get near that point, someone usually calls me and says, ‘So-and-so has it’ and it pumps me back up. So, I go back and fight some more. I’m in this until the day I die.”

When Nick was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer he wasn’t interested in the standard of care. “I knew what the standard of care did for about everybody else and I didn’t want to go down that route because I knew where it would end. Fortunately for me, I had doctors who found genetic mutations and understood I would have better success with different types of chemotherapy and radiation.”

Nick’s hope is that research and treatments progress to where a person diagnosed with pancreatic cancer has more options. “The disbelief and horror that happens when you are diagnosed, will be followed with, ‘We have four different treatment options, they’re effective and have an 80% or 90% cure rate. Which flavor do you want?’ Hopefully, Bruce and I will be around to see that.”

That day isn’t here yet, but Wistar scientists are working to make it happen. Nick and Bruce met with Dr. Rahul Shinde, one of Wistar’s resident pancreatic cancer researchers.

Dr. Shinde’s research is in one of the hottest areas of science and focuses on how the gut microbiome impacts immune cell function — those immune cells’ ability to fight cancer. He hopes to pave the way for future gut-bacteria-based therapies in the hopes of improved pancreatic cancer patient survival.

Dr. Shinde studies how macrophages — specialized cells that act as a front-line defense system for our immune systems — alter the pancreatic cancer tumor microenvironment which plays a key role in how the cancer develops, progresses, and reacts to therapies. “The successful outcome of this research may form the basis for gut bacteria-based therapies or diet-based therapies to improve the survival as well as the quality of life of pancreatic cancer patients,” he said.

“If you’re going to get sick, Philadelphia is a good place to be because we have the best doctors and researchers in the world,” said Bruce. “I have a big mouth. I’ll fight for more and more research money and more and more exposure. Did you know Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, Michael Landon, Patrick Swayze, Steve Jobs, and Alex Trebek all died of pancreatic cancer? My mother always said we need to get a celebrity behind us to tell this story. I don’t plan to quit telling all the stories I have anytime soon.”