As more research time is dedicated to pancreatic cancer, clinicians are gaining important insights into this disease and the unique way it manages to overcome most who are diagnosed with it. Perhaps one of the most promising new discoveries is the realization that pancreatic cancer has four distinct subtypes that might respond better to their own unique treatments.

The recent discovery of the four subtypes is considered a major breakthrough for a number of reasons. The biggest is the fact that pancreatic cancer is a relatively well-known killer. While only an estimated 53,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease annually, about 41,000 die from it yearly. The five-year survival rate is estimated at less than 10 percent.

While much more research needs to be done following the subtype discovery, the door to potentially enhanced treatments is now open, clinicians say. The subtypes, called squamous, pancreatic progenitor, immunogenic and aberrantly differentiated endocrine eXocrine, may each respond differently to different medications and treatments. At present, pancreatic cancer is treated with a one-size-fits-all approach more or less. The subtype discovery could lead to much more targeted, personalized treatment that is hoped to improve patient outcomes.

Just how soon research will progress to the stage where more targeted treatments are available to patients remains unknown. The initial breakthrough, however, is a huge step in the right direction, researchers say. The discovery provides an important focal point for future research that may one day lead to more successful treatments for this disease.

People who are at risk for pancreatic cancer should talk to their doctor about the condition. The risk factors include family history, tobacco use, obesity, diabetes and chronic pancreatitis, among other factors. While a widespread early screening mechanism is not yet available, doctors do have tools at their disposal to screen for this disease when symptoms and risks warrant such action. Early detection can prove critical for successful medical interventions should pancreatic cancer develop.