The fourth-highest cause of cancer deaths in the United States, pancreatic cancer is one of the most dreaded diagnoses. With a five-year survival rate of only 5 percent, it is estimated that pancreatic cancer claimed the lives of more than 37,500 people in the United States in 2008.

Despite these alarming statistics, funding for pancreatic cancer research has lagged behind that for other cancers, prompting the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 2000 to dub the disease the “orphan cancer.” Since then, there has been a major boost in federal research funding, from $17. 5 million in 1999 to $73.5 million in 2007.

When M. Wasif Saif, M.D., M.B.B.S., was studying to be a doctor at King Edward Medical College in Lahore, Pakistan, he didn’t plan to become an oncologist. But when a family member was diagnosed with cancer, he saw firsthand how malignancies can be a formidable foe. “I took this as a challenge,” Saif remembers, “and decided to become an oncologist.”

Saif, now associate professor of medicine, went on to a residency in internal medicine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and then completed a fellowship in medical oncology at the NCI. Since arriving at Yale in 1995, he has built an active clinical practice as a member of Yale Medical Group, and also serves as co-director of the Gastrointestinal Cancers Program at Yale Cancer Center (YCC), which provides specialized care for patients with pancreatic cancer.

Saif is a member of the Yale Pancreatic Disease Program, a team of Yale physicians in gastroenterology, genetics, pathology, diagnostic radiology, surgical oncology, medical oncology and radiation oncology. The YPDP offers comprehensive treatment for many pancreatic disorders, including cancer.

“Dr. Saif is one of the true rising stars in the field of gastrointestinal malignancies, and he has already developed a national and international reputation,” says Edward Chu, M.D., deputy director and chief of medical oncology at YCC.

Saif sees the greatest potential for advancing the treatment of gastrointestinal malignancies, particularly pancreatic cancer, in advancing clinical trials to test new drugs and treatment regimens, and he is enrolling patients in Phase I and II clinical trials at Yale. Information on these trials can be found at http://yaletrials.org. Saif is also working with a group of researchers to develop a pancreatic cancer screen in high-risk patients, such as those with mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that are involved in the development of breast and ovarian cancer; researchers believe such patients are also at greater risk for pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer continues to challenge physicians, and effective screening guidelines are still a long way off, but Saif believes the frustrations are worth it. “When I see the smiles on the faces of patients who are living longer because of our efforts,” he says, “it is a great satisfaction.”