Pancreatic cancer isn't a pretty one. Realistically, it's tough to detect because symptoms are so subtle; it's tough to treat and it's tough to beat. Now there's light on the horizon, with what could be a true treatment breakthrough.
Scientists have found a way to break down - and through - the biological wall that pancreatic cancer encases itself in, a finding that could lead to treatments for this currently untouchable cancer.
Sunil Hingorani, M.D., Ph.D., an associate member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center Clinical Research and Public Health Sciences divisions, and colleagues have been able to describe how the barrier around pancreas tumors behaves and discovered a way to smash through it.
dailyRx.com reached out to Dr. Hingorani for a lay explanation of this complex disease structure. He provided background information on pancreatic cancer, writing, "The same factors that make pancreas cancer difficult to diagnose and treat, from its vague symptoms and rapid progression, have also made it nearly impossible to study."
To overcome this obstacle, Dr. Hingorani produced a mouse model and "created the first replica of human pancreas cancer in mice. The model recreates the same genetic changes that initiate the cancer in humans and accumulate naturally as the disease progresses, the same progression of clinical symptoms and the same metastatic spread of disease to other organ sites," Dr. Hingorani tells dailyRx.
He goes on to explain that tumors of the pancreas, by design, are difficult to penetrate. "In addition to its aggressiveness, pancreas tumors have characteristics that shield them from the effects of chemotherapy,"
One of these characteristics is sort of like a shell that surrounds the tumor. Dr. Hingorani says he and his colleagues have been "investigating various ways to disrupt the dense material within pancreas tumors to enhance delivery of promising therapeutic drugs to – and throughout – the tumor."
For this study, researchers used an enzyme (PEGPH20) developed by Halozyme Therapeutics to get through this shell that's made up primarily of hyaluronic acid (HA). This component accumulates in high concentrations in pancreatic cancers, Dr. Hingorani explains, which in turn leads to very high pressures and prevents chemotherapies from getting into the tumor.
By degrading HA with this enzyme (which can be given via the vein like standard chemotherapy), Dr.Hingorani’s team was able to lower these pressures to near normal and then found that chemotherapy could get into these tumors easily.
"This resulted in frequent shrinkage in size of the pancreas tumors and metastases and improved survival by 70 percent" Dr. Hingorani writes.
He concludes, "This approach has significant potential to improve therapy for patients, not only by improving tumor cell death, but by allowing administration of a lower effective dose of drug, thereby reducing toxic side effects," Dr. Hingorani adds.
The method is now being studied in an ongoing clinical trial, details of which are accessible below.
This research was published in a paper in the March 20 issue of Cancer Cell.
The study was supported with grants from the National Cancer Institute, the Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation, Safeway and several individuals.