The Scientific Method.
The scientific method used to discover how things work requires the design of experiments to test a hypothesis. A hypothesis is tested when all of the conditions are controlled except for one, and careful measurements are made to determine if the factor being tested has an effect on the outcome. If it is not possible to control all of the conditions (e.g. not all people are the same), then the experimental test is done in groups of test subjects, with the assumption that all of the other uncontrolled conditions will average out.
Testing hypotheses in humans.
In the case complex medical problems, the conditions that cause a problem are unknown. In this case the researches must work backwards, trying to compare many patients to find the common factors that are present in the disease but not in people without the disease. Ones a factor is identified, then the researchers go forward again to test whether the factor that they have identified actually causes the disease. Obviously, the second step cannot be done in humans, and therefore animal models or simulation approaches are used. This process takes a lot of time, and is often hit or miss.
One example is the question of whether alcohol causes pancreatitis. The observation was that alcoholics had pancreatitis more often then non-alcoholics. Thus, it was assumed that alcohol was the cause. However, several studies that were published in 2009 with thousands of patients showed that smoking was the most important factor, and that most people with chronic pancreatitis do NOT drink enough alcohol to damage the pancreas. This finding markedly changes the way physicians think about pancreatitis. However, this research took many years and many dedicated physicians + scientists + medical assistants + technicians + data-base managers + statisticians + thousands of participating patients who took a lot of time, and gave a lot of personal information to help all of us understand this problem.
Research requires money.
How much does it cost to hire one technician with a masters degree to work on one project for 10 years? The answer is well over half a million dollars. This is BEFORE one considers chemicals, test tubes, sensitive laboratory equipment, sample processing tools, computers, rented space, etc. Multiply this cost times all of the people who are required to work on a complex patient problem like pancreatic disease.
Priorities for patients, pharmaceutical companies and the government.
There are a many people suffering from a huge number of different diseases – and to each person, their disease (or the disease of a loved one) is a priority. Unfortunately, pancreatic diseases are not as common as some other diseases, and it has been linked to alcohol -which lowered the enthusiasm of physicians and scientists to study these diseases (i.e. “just quit drinking”). The pancreas is a forgotten organ, and an ignored disease.
You can help. In the tabs to the left are some ideas of how to get involved either by directly supporting medical research, or by joining a patient advocacy group (e.g. the National Pancreas Foundation). This is the ONLY way that the research needed to improve or prevent pancreatic diseases will succeed.