Morristown researcher presses for pancreatic cancer cure

Dr. Angela Alistar, research oncologist at Morristown Medical Center
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Jamie Lynn Connors

Dr. Angela Alistar likes a challenge. And she has chosen a daunting one: Pancreatic cancer.

With a five-year survival rate of only 10 percent, it has the third-highest mortality rate of any cancer, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

“All patients of pancreatic cancer deserve a good fight and a lot of focus, research-wise,” says Alistar, medical director of gastrointestinal medical oncology at Morristown Medical Center.

Pancreatic tumors are among the most difficult to decode, she says.  In addition to treating patients every day, she is co-leading a phase 3 clinical trial of a new drug to determine if it’s an effective treatment for metastatic pancreatic cancer.

CPI-613, or devimistat, is a “very well-tolerated” drug that attacks cancer cells and inhibits their ability to multiply, according to Rafael Pharmaceuticals.

Alistar, 43, suspected that devimistat could be successful in combination with chemotherapy agents.

“Finding drugs that don’t add too many side effects is very important, so scientifically it made sense,” said the oncologist, a native of Romania who resides in Morris County.

Video: Dr. Angela Alistar:

She led a recent study at Morristown Medical Center pairing devimistat with gemcitabine and nab-paclitaxel. The tests were sponsored by the Atlantic Health System and Rafael Pharmaceuticals.

The drugs were well tolerated, with promising results, according to findings Alistar presented to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Does this mean that Alistar has unearthed an effective treatment for this deadly disease?

Well, not yet.

The next step is the completion of the larger, internationally randomized trial. She is currently co-leading it with Dr. Philip A. Philip, of the Karmanos Cancer Institute at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“It is a multicenter, international clinical trial in which study participants are randomly assigned to receive one treatment or the other,” Alistar explains.

The trial’s completion is expected in March 2022. Rafael Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s manufacturer, will analyze the results and then determine next steps.

For now, Alistar suggests diagnosed patients enroll in clinical trials.

“I think the only way we can increase the survival of patients with pancreatic cancer is by enrolling them in clinical trials, because there is where they have more treatment options,” Alistar said. “So if you want to position yourself for success, you’re looking for clinical trials.”

She suggests lifestyle changes to help reduce the risk of cancer. For the past six years, she has been following a plant-based diet.

“There is a lot of data that animal products can increase your cancer risk, in particular, gastrointestinal cancers as well,” says Alistar, a mother of boys aged 8 and 12. “I’ve seen plenty of patients, young patients, with cancer and they really don’t have necessarily any medical problems.”

Although her children and husband do not follow her diet regimen, she sticks to it “for health risk reasons, for environmental reasons, ethical reasons — all the reasons, really.”

Alistar’s work has funding from the Jo-Ann Danzis Foundation, an organization increasing awareness of pancreatic cancer and advancing research.

In her youth, Alistar aspired to a Broadway career. But she discovered her strength was science, not the stage.

“I’m just very good at taking tests, and science in general,” she said in a video profile.

The research community is hoping her next clinical trial is a hit.

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