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Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Dannielle Engle

Assistant Professor, Helen McLoraine Developmental Chair

Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Regulatory Biology Laboratory     

Dr. Engle and her team are working to find a way to easily and quickly diagnose pancreatic cancer, using a test similar to the PSA test for prostate cancer or colon cancer screenings.

“High impact science is high risk. We’re seeing concrete changes in our output by having these diverse groups.”

- Dr. Dannielle Engle

Dr. Dannielle Engle, Finding New and Exciting Ways to Tackle an Enduring Challenge

If there’s one important lesson to Dr. Dannielle Engle’s work, it’s that nothing comes easily. This is especially true for someone who is attempting to find ways to take on one of the most challenging diseases in cancer research – pancreatic cancer. Dr. Engle’s work at the Salk Institute’s Regulatory Biology Laboratory embodies the initiative’s mission to foster innovation, equity, and collaboration in medical research. Her dedication shines a hopeful light on a disease with a daunting 99 percent mortality rate and underscores the critical need for early detection methods.  


Dr. Engle was recently awarded a $500,000 Prebys Research Heroes grant, part of a $10 million two-year initiative that celebrates the contributions female scientists make in the field of biomedical and medical research, and which honors outstanding San Diego scientists as a key lever to create a more innovative, equitable, and collaborative medical research system. 


Pancreatic cancer, a relatively rare but devastating disease, claims the lives of 60-70,000 Americans each year, ranking as the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths. “By the time we see symptoms, the cancer has usually spread,” Dr. Engle explains, highlighting the profound need for advancements in early detection. The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often vague and common, making it difficult to detect before it’s too late. Although scans can sometimes find the disease, they are expensive and not a viable option for widespread screening. “What we need is a blood test, but that’s something we haven’t developed yet,” she adds, emphasizing the challenges her lab faces in distinguishing pancreatic cancer from much more common conditions like pancreatitis. 


Dr. Engle’s journey to the forefront of pancreatic cancer research began in an unexpected place. Originally a music major with a passion for the violin, she found herself gravitating toward a career in science. “My parents were secretly relieved,” she admitted. After her father and her uncle lost battles with the disease, she determined to devote her scientific work to pancreatic cancer research. “I wanted to work with patients dealing with this because I understand the challenge,” she notes.  


The unusual nature of pancreatic cancer, with its ability to evade detection and treatment, poses significant challenges. Dr. Engle explains that the pancreas is a mobile organ, hidden away behind other organs. It has unique properties that assist tumors in evading treatment. Her lab specializes in models that help understand these peculiarities, aiming to find a diagnostic marker akin to the PSA test for prostate cancer or colon cancer screenings. 


Beyond the scientific hurdles, Dr. Engle is deeply committed to fostering diversity and inclusion within the scientific community. Following the murder of George Floyd and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, she helped start a diversity and inclusion task force at Salk. “You can’t do groundbreaking research if you’re afraid for your personal safety,” she asserts, highlighting the importance of creating a safe and welcoming environment for all researchers. 


This commitment extends to her lab’s approach to mentorship and training, especially for high school students and underrepresented groups in science. “High impact science is high risk,” Dr. Engle notes. “We’re seeing concrete changes in our output by having these diverse groups.” 


Dr. Engle’s approach to science is refreshingly candid and inclusive. She hopes to prepare her trainees for a future in science that values social consciousness and collaboration, marking a significant shift from the competitive and isolated environment that once characterized scientific research. 


As a beacon of hope and innovation in the fight against pancreatic cancer, Dr. Dannielle Engle’s work not only advances our understanding of a deadly disease, but also paves the way for a more inclusive and collaborative scientific community. Her work represents a paradigm shift in how science is conducted, which promises to bring us closer to conquering pancreatic cancer and other profound challenges. 

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