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Home » Cancer Care » Artificial Intelligence: A Game Changer for Pancreatic Cancer Research

What does artificial intelligence (AI) have to do with helping doctors detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage? As it turns out, a lot.

AI refers to machines programmed to mimic human reasoning with the goal of learning from failure and providing the best recommendation for a specific subject. In the case of pancreatic cancer, a disease with a five-year survival rate in the single digits that is often detected too late, this revolutionary technology could be a game changer for patients.

Fighting pancreatic cancer

The Lustgarten Foundation, the world’s largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research, has directed $188 million since its inception more than 20 years ago to finding better treatment options for patients, and funds some of the most innovative researchers in the field to improve survival outcomes and create a robust community of long-term survivors.

To help achieve this goal, the Foundation supports the work of Dr. Elliot Fishman, Professor of Radiology and Radiological Science at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Dr. Fishman’s research has shown computers can be trained to detect pancreatic tumors in CT scans, the most commonly used imaging modality for the initial evaluation of suspected pancreatic cancer.

A revolutionary approach

The location of the pancreas deep inside the abdomen makes detecting pancreatic cancer difficult, even for experienced radiologists, especially when they aren’t specifically looking for it. The Felix Project – named for Harry Potter’s Felix Felicis, a magical potion that makes the drinker lucky – is working to change that.

Led by Dr. Fishman, the project, which is now in its fourth year and has received approximately $6 million in funding from the Foundation, uses sophisticated computer programs that teach themselves to read CT scans and are better able to detect smaller pancreatic tumors, so diagnosis and subsequent treatment can be initiated much sooner.

 “The Felix Project has the potential to change how CT scans are looked at in the future and improve early detection methods and patient outcomes,” said Dr. Fishman.  


It is estimated that approximately 40 million Americans undergo abdominal CT scans each year for everything from a car accident to back pain. Therein lies the opportunity to be able to detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage, possibly before a person even develops symptoms.

The practical applications for the Felix Project could be endless, with organs from the kidney to the liver eventually benefiting from the enhanced screening techniques being developed right now for the pancreas. Next steps include gathering scans of tumors measuring less than 1 centimeter to train the computer to find tumors much smaller than current standards, as well as analyzing pancreatic cysts and neuroendocrine tumors.

The Lustgarten Foundation is the only nonprofit in the country to have four dedicated pancreatic cancer research laboratories, meaning more time and talent are being directed to finding a cure for pancreatic cancer. Promising research like the Felix Project offers new hope to future patients that their disease can be caught at an earlier stage when surgery is a more likely option, leading to better survival outcomes.

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