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Promise and Progress - The Skip Viragh Center

The Time is Now: 2010-2011

The Skip Viragh Center

Date: November 11, 2010

Skip Viragh
Albert P. "Skip" Viragh

Bringing Hope to Patients with Pancreas Cancer

In the laboratory, cancer immunology expert Elizabeth Jaffee works to perfect her pancreas cancer vaccine, a vaccine that alerts the immune system and activates it against pancreas cancer cells. In other laboratories, investigators are uncovering genetic keys to the start and progression of the disease. In the clinic, oncologists, radiation oncologists, gastroenterologists, surgeons, pathologists, radiologists, nurses—arguably the nation’s leading experts on pancreatic cancer—come together to evaluate new patients and develop for them a comprehensive treatment plan. 

These research laboratories and model clinic are elements of the new Skip Viragh Center for Pancreas Cancer Clinical Research and Patient Care. A recent $20 million contribution made possible by Albert P. “Skip” Viragh is helping to further speed the transfer of laboratory findings to clinical studies of new ways to prevent, treat, and ultimately cure pancreas cancer.

A.P. “Skip” Viragh, Jr., was considered one of the most influential people in the investment industry. He founded Rydex Investments, based in Rockville, Md., and grew the business from a three-person operation to a 200-employee enterprise with $10 billion in assets under management.

 His life was cut short in 2003 by pancreas cancer. He was 62.  Just three years earlier, he formed the Viragh Family Foundation to fund medical research, to fight poverty and domestic violence, and to support educational endeavors.

“We believe investing in Johns Hopkins will have a significant impact on its scientists’ ability to conquer pancreas cancer,” says Viragh representative Katherine Viragh. “Losing a loved one to this disease is devastating, and our hope is that the Skip Viragh Center will help improve treatment and care and save lives of patients with pancreas cancer.”

 The Skip Viragh Center fosters collaborations between pancreas cancer researchers and clinicians to merge the latest research in pancreas cancer with the most advanced therapies.  Partnering with the multi-specialty clinic, our Skip Viragh Center team can bring comprehensive and compassionate care to pancreas cancer patients around the world.

“This extremely generous donation gives us the potential to double—even triple—the number of patients we treat,” says Daniel Laheru, co-director of the Skip Viragh Center.
With more than 50 scientists dedicated to the understanding and treatment of pancreas cancer, Johns Hopkins is at the forefront of pancreatic cancer research and care. “We offer the best medicine available for this cancer,” says Laheru.

As recently as five years ago, pancreas cancer was considered untreatable. It was these dismal survival rates that drove Jaffee, co-director of the Skip Viragh Center, to the specialty.  When she was receiving her medical training, her uncle was diagnosed with pancreas cancer.  “He searched desperately for treatment options, but there were none,” says Jaffee.  “My mission is to give my patients the chance my uncle never had.”

“We believe this Center will be a lasting legacy to Skip Viragh.   His generosity gives us the means to explore the most novel treatments for pancreatic cancer and recruit the best and brightest young investigators,” says Jaffee. “The Skip Viragh Center is the model for training future pancreas cancer specialists.”

Progress against Pancreas Cancer:

- A pancreas cancer vaccine that turns on the immune system and leads immune cells, typically blind to cancer, to attack cancer cells in the pancreas and throughout the body was developed here.  In recent clinical studies, a small number of patients were vaccinated two weeks prior to surgery, jumpstarting their immune systems and then allowing, for the first time, doctors to see and begin to understand exactly what the immune system does in the pancreas.

Combined approaches using the vaccine and radiation therapy, standard chemotherapy drugs, and newer drugs that specifically target cancer cells are helping clinicians attack all of the cellular mechanisms at play in pancreatic cancer and make treatment more effective.

- Collaborations between the Skip Viragh Center for Pancreas Cancer Clinical Research and Patient Care and the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center have led to many genetic discoveries, including the sequencing of the pancreas cancer genome.  This team approach to pancreas cancer management is expected to yield biomarkers for early detection of pancreas cancer and monitoring the effectiveness of treatments, new gene-targeted therapies, optimized sequencing of combined therapies, and the identification of new drugs to combat the disease.

- Personalized cancer treatments that are tailored to the specific genetic characteristics of patients’ tumors represent the very latest in clinical cancer advances. Mutations to three pancreas cancer genes were found to make pancreas cancers more responsive to treatment with the FDA-approved drugs mitomycin C and cisplatin.

- The National Familial Pancreas Tumor Registry, based at the Kimmel Cancer Center, has collected more than 3,000 blood and tissue samples to help uncover the molecular and genetic causes of pancreatic cancer. Discoveries made have led to a novel computer software tool that helps identify people at risk of developing pancreatic cancer due to an inherited genetic predisposition.  Called PancPro, physicians and genetic counselors can use the tool to identify patients who would benefit from early screening.

- An endoscopy center helps people with a family history of pancreas cancer learn if they have treatable precancerous lesions. Often times, surgeons can remove the precancerous lesions before they progress to pancreas cancer.

-  Skilled nurse coordinators guide patients through all stages of diagnosis and treatment. Specialized supportive care including pain management, nutrition, and psychosocial support is provided. Long-term follow up care is given to each patient.

Learn more about the Skip Viragh Center and hear patient testimonials at Centers and Clinics.

For appointments, call 410-933-PANC.

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