Progress in pancreatic cancer fight is slow
Although the outlook for most people with pancreatic cancer today is bleak, researchers believe that improved screening methods and experimental treatments may someday give patients more hope. New experiments involve screening people who are at high risk for pancreatic cancer because they have two or more close relatives with the disease, says Margaret Tempero, a pancreatic cancer expert at the University of California-San Francisco.
Doctors can examine and even X-ray the pancreas with specialized scopes, then remove premalignant lesions or early cancers. The procedures also allow doctors to get a better idea of how pancreatic tumors begin and develop. But removing part of the pancreas can cause serious health problems, Tempero says. And only about 5 percent of pancreatic cancers are inherited. Doctors have no way to screen the general public.
Pancreatic cancer patients may benefit from the growing field of “targeted therapies,” or drugs designed to selectively block certain signals inside tumor cells, experts say. Although these new drugs are approved for other types of tumors, doctors are eager to see whether they will work on pancreatic cancers. Some targeted therapies and other promising treatments include:
Tarceva. This pill silences growth signals that allow cancer cells to divide wildly. In a clinical trial of nearly 600 pancreatic cancer patients, those who added Tarceva to standard chemotherapy lived an average of 6.4 months, while those on chemo alone lived 5.9 months. At the end of one year, 25 percent of patients who took the Tarceva combination were alive, compared with 19 percent of the others, says John Hamm of Norton Healthcare in Louisville, who has conducted trials of Tarceva for three years.
Erbitux. In a trial of 41 patients, 32 percent lived at least a year, according to research published in July in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Although Erbitux and Tarceva both target the same growth-promoting enzyme, Erbitux blocks a part of the enzyme on the surface of tumor cells, while Tarceva works inside the cell.
Vaccines. Unlike traditional vaccines, these — including GVAX from Cell Genesys and PANVAC-VF from Therion Biologics —aim to treat tumours, rather than prevent them. Researchers hope the vaccines will spur the immune system to recognise and kill cancer cells.