pan1“People with pancreatic cancer are a unique group, brave and strong, and that inspires you,” says Barish Edil, MD, associate professor of GI tumor and endocrine surgery. He says that he was first attracted to working with pancreatic cancer due to its technical challenge, but is now, “in it for emotional reasons.”

While completing his fellowship in complex surgical oncology at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Edil pioneered the technique of performing the complex operation known as the Whipple, laparoscopically – meaning that instead of being an open surgery, Edil performs the procedure for pancreatic cancer with instruments inserted through a half dozen tiny incisions.

“It was like coming up with a whole new operation,” Edil says.

Edil performed the first laparoscopic Whipple at Hopkins in 2008 and the first in Colorado shortly after joining the University in 2012. He and his team have now performed over 100 laparoscopic Whipple operations and have started training visiting teams of surgeons in the technique.

“We had a group here from China and now they’ve performed ten at their institution,” Edil says.

Dr. Edil also runs a research laboratory that works with the ability of the body’s immune system to recognize and target cancer. This is the cutting-edge field called immunotherapy – basically, because tumor tissue grows from the body’s own cells, the immune system fails to control tumors the way it controls foreign bad guys like the flu. Edil and other researchers at CU and elsewhere are trying to change that, with Edil working specifically on vaccines meant to prime the immune system to notice and attack cancer tissue.pan2

Interestingly, minimally invasive surgery and cancer vaccines aren’t as different as they seem. “Open surgery is immunosuppressive – it turns off the body’s ability to rid itself of foreign and invading material. With minimally invasive surgery and vaccines, we want to make surgery less immunosuppressive while stimulating the immune system. This way we come at the problem from two different directions,” Edil says.

Due in part to the fact that pancreatic cancer rarely shows any symptoms until the disease has spread, it carries with it one of the highest cancer morbidities. According to the American Cancer Society, 5-year survival rates for range from 14 percent of people diagnosed with the earliest form of the disease to only one percent of people who are more commonly diagnosed with late-stage disease.

But, “I absolutely believe there is hope on the horizon for pancreatic cancer,” Edil says. “Ten years from now, I expect we will have better chemotherapy, better surgery, more immunotherapy, all leading to better survival.”

As if developing a new technique in one of the most challenging fields of surgery, and leading the search for vaccines within the relatively new field of cancer immunotherapy weren’t enough, Edil has three kids and tries his best to be a sports dad. “I have a wonderful wife who takes a lot of the burden off me,” Edil says while sitting under a beautiful oil painting his wife painted. “But I love it. I try to make their events.”

When he’s not operating or in the lab or being dad, watch out for Barish Edil on the Department of Surgery hockey team. (Yes, there is a Department of Surgery hockey team…)