Father’s death inspires UNC researcher’s fight to cure pancreatic cancer

March 5, 2019
Father's death inspires UNC researcher's fight to cure pancreatic cancer

A woman’s fight to find a cure for pancreatic cancer has gained national attention after her father’s tragic death. Now, her research may lead to an effective treatment option for the deadliest cancer.

As a child, Kirsten Bryant remembers her dad, Bernie Elzer, as larger than life. In 2012, pancreatic cancer threatened his life.

“He, of course, attacked it the way he attacked everything else in life,” said Bryant, now a pancreatic cancer researcher at UNC.

While her dad fought the disease, Bryant studied cell biology at Cornell University. Eventually, Elzer’s treatment options ran out. He died at age 70.

It was then that Bryant redirected her goals toward a PhD in pancreatic cancer research at UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“I just want to continue his fight in some way and find other treatments,” said Bryant, who played a key role in testing a double-drug combination.

According to Bryant, in the double-drug method, one drug makes the cancer cells reliant on one energy source. Then it becomes vulnerable to the second drug.

“You can actually starve the pancreatic cancer cell,” said Bryant.

UNC’s Dr. Channing Der says now there is reason for optimism. Based on Lineberger’s findings, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas is planning to use the drug combination in human trials.

“This is a cancer that has defied so many of our best ideas,” said Der. “And so we think, within the next five years, we’re going to have a breakthrough -- and Kirsten’s observations present one of the more significant findings that we have.”

Bryant knows her dad would be very proud.

“He was very proud that I was the first person in my family to get a PhD,” said Bryant. “Unfortunately, he couldn’t see that happen.”

Similar research findings using mouse models at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah are also moving on to human trials. The Huntsman and Lineberger studies were published side-by-side in this week’s journal Nature Medicine.

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