Improving outcomes from pancreatic cancer continues to pose a major challenge across the world, but Professor Minoti Apte is striving to make a difference.
On Friday, 5 August, as her name was read aloud to an audience of hundreds of her peers in Sydney, it was night-time in Sendai.
Professor Minoti Apte was in Japan through her role as Director of the Ingham Institute's Pancreatic Research Group.
“I had nominated members of my team for other awards, so they were at the NSW Premiers Awards in Sydney,” Professor Apte explains.
“I sent one an SMS to see how they went.”
It turns out to be typical of Professor Apte’s modesty.
She was nominated for the Professor Rob Sutherland AO ‘Make a Difference’ Award, recognising an individual working to improve cancer outcomes for people across the state.
“On reply, I was given the news that it was me who had won.”
The pancreatic researcher, based at the Ingham Institute in Sydney’s south west, downplays her recognition.
“It’s humbling and pleasing; it’s great to have peers recognise your contribution,” she says.
“I’m head of the team, but it’s a team effort. I stand on the shoulders of the people who encourage me.”
Professor Apte was awarded the Order of Australia in 2014 and NSW Woman of the Year in 2015. Although she is proud of these achievements, she’s much more focused on the future of pancreatic cancer.
“I’m really humbled and honoured,” she says.
“The awards are great, but they aren’t as important as developing new treatments that give pancreatic cancer patients hope, give patients an extra few quality years.”
Under the radar
“Pancreatic cancer is one of the most devastating cancers,” Professor Apte says.
In 2012 over 1,000 people in NSW were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and over 850 people died.
What’s more, it’s a generally aggressive and fast-growing cancer.
By the year 2020, Professor Apte says pancreatic cancer is predicted to become the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, with a similar trend expected in Australia.
By 2030 it will surpass liver, colon, lung and prostate cancers.
“This isn’t just because the incidence of pancreatic cancer is rising, it is also because the outcomes of other cancers are improving,” Professor Apte says.
“Because pancreatic cancer hasn’t been as common, it has never received the research attention it deserved. It’s not lung cancer, or breast cancer or prostate cancer.”
Despite this, Professor Apte’s work has already been game changing in how researchers see pancreatic cancer.
“Towards the end of my PhD I was the first to isolate the cells, called pancreatic stellate cells, that make the scar tissue in diseased pancreas,” she says.
“It was the foundation of a whole new field of research in pancreatology.”
Her discovery looks at how scar tissue is made in the pancreas. It resulted in finding how pancreatic stellate cells help pancreatic cancer cells to stimulate the growth and spread of cancer.
“When I first started there was lots of resistance about the idea of these cells helping cancer; people thought instead that they acted as a fortress, helping to cordon off cancer,” she explains.
“Now there are a lot research groups around the world working on the helper role of stellate cells.”
Ingham Institute Research Director Professor Michael Barton OAM says the Ingham Institute is very fortunate to have Professor Apte as part of its research team.
“Professor Minoti Apte is nationally and internationally acclaimed in the field of pancreatic cancer research and her tireless work continues to play a major role in improving the health and wellbeing of Australian cancer patients.”
How can we reduce the impact of pancreatic cancer?
Professor Apte says funding research and undertaking innovative research that challenges current ideas is what’s needed to help reduce the impact of pancreatic cancer in NSW.
“What we need to do is fund this cancer properly to get to new treatments quickly enough,” Professor Apte says.
“Just targeting cancer cells is not enough. We need to be working on the surrounding cells that help cancer to grow.”