Henry Ford Health System said Monday it has received a “tranformational” gift of $20 million that could make Detroit an epicenter of pancreatic cancer research across the world.

The amount was described as “massive” for pancreatic cancer, which receives far less government funding and fewer gifts for research than cancers that are less rare, officials said.

Though an estimated 53,670 Americans are diagnosed with the disease annually, compared with hundreds of thousands diagnosed with breast, lung or prostate cancers, pancreatic cancer is universally deadly, with a five-year survival rate of just 8 percent.

The donation from an anonymous donor will be used to create the Henry Ford Pancreatic Cancer Center, with plans to become a hub for national and international collaboration targeted at early detection, said Dr. Steven Kalkanis, medical director at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery.

“For pancreatic cancer, in particular, this is a massive down payment on what we firmly believe will be a transformational initiative,” Kalkanis said Monday. “When it’s viewed in the context of the incidence in the population and of the impact it has on patients, this is a massive gift.”

Pancreatic cancer is a silent killer because it progresses without symptoms until it’s deadly, final stages, Kalkanis said. Research will focus on expanding the number of identified biomarkers, or medical signs, of pancreatic cancer in patients. The biomarkers would then be translated into screening tests for earlier detection of pancreatic cancer.

Researchers will explore the use of artificial intelligence to analyze medical records and radiological studies to identify previously unidentified patterns in patients’ medical records that might alert health providers to an early diagnosis. The center also plans to develop investigator-initiated clinical trials to advance pancreatic cancer treatment.

“We are grateful for this transformational gift that will allow Henry Ford to bring the best minds in the world together to shine an important light on pancreatic cancer,” said Wright Lassiter III, Henry Ford Health System president and CEO, in a statement. “It marks a crucial step in advancing pancreatic cancer research with the goal of increasing survivorship for patients diagnosed with this terrible disease.”

Since research can be “terribly underfunded,” the donation is a significant gift in advancing efforts to diagnose, treat, cure and prevent the disease, said Kerri Kaplan, president/CEO of the Lustgarten Foundation, considered the country’s largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research.

“We certainly need more players in the field,” she said Monday. “If we can really pour money into it, we’re going to see breakthroughs and big changes for patients.”

The donation follows groundbreaking last June on the 187,000-square-foot Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion, expected to open in early 2019 as part of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.

Located on West Grand Boulevard across from Henry Ford Hospital, the pavilion is named for Detroit businessman and philanthropist Mort Harris’ wife, Brigitte, who suffered from pancreatic cancer before dying at age 81 in 2016. The expansion was made possible, in part, with a $20 million donation from the Harris family, Kalkanis said.

“We were very fortunate to have Mort Harris give another $20 million gift originally,” Kalkanis said. “(The gift announced Monday) is from a different donor, and there already are people who are interested in adding (funding) to it, now that there is some momentum built around a dreaded disease that is relatively rare ...”

Earlier detection could change the disease’s low survival rate while enhancing individual treatments and raising awareness, said Dr. Howard Crawford, a University of Michigan professor who directs a pancreas research program and serves on an advisory board with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

“There is no question that this contribution in the right hands with the right focus … is absolutely critical,” he said. “If we can catch this cancer early, like colon and breast, then we have a much better opportunity to treat it effectively.”

The Henry Ford Pancreatic Cancer Center will be overseen by Dr. David Kwon, director of surgical oncology with the Henry Ford Cancer Institute and director at Henry Ford Hospital’s Multidisciplinary Pancreas Clinic.

Kwon said he hopes the new center’s global collaborations changes the landscape of pancreatic cancer treatment.

“Never has there been a greater momentum in the fight against pancreatic cancer, and unfortunately, the incidence of pancreatic cancer will only continue to rise,” Kwon said in a statement. “To effectively fight pancreatic cancer, we need to work to find solutions to problems that have eluded clinicians and researchers to date, while embracing a culture of innovation and collaboration.”

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.

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