A new drug that prevents pancreatic cancer from becoming treatment-resistant may be a breakthrough in the fight against the deadly disease.
Pancreatic cancer is the third deadliest type of cancer because the disease is usually diagnosed too late and often chemotherapy stops having an affect on the tumors.
Cracking the code to these two problems might finally give sufferers a shot at more than five years of life after diagnosis.
A new drug developed by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center researchers could keep pancreatic cancer vulnerable and bolster other treatment drugs, raising survival rates by as much as 50 percent, early tests in mice suggest.
Pancreatic cancer is hard to catch because of the organ’s location and hard to treat due to chemo resistance, but a new drug overcame the cancer’s ability to fight back chemo in mice
The advent of chemotherapy in the 1940s changed the way we think about cancer.
Once it was a death sentence, and now it is often a manageable disease.
But pancreatic cancer is the exception.
Other cancers are diagnosed earlier and have become less fatal. Pancreatic cancer diagnoses and fatalities are both going up.
The latest American Cancer Society figures estimate that 55,440 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018.
WHAT IS PANCREATIC CANCER?
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal forms of the disease. Around 95 percent of people who contract it die from it.
Steve Jobs, Joan Crawford, Patrick Swayze, and Luciano Pavarotti all died of pancreatic cancer.
It is the fourth-leading killer in the United States. Around 10,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year in the UK, and 50,000 in the US.
WHAT IS THE CAUSE?
It is caused by the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the pancreas – a large gland in the digestive system.
WHO HAS THE HIGHEST RISK?
Most cases (90 percent) are in people over the age of 55. Around half of all new cases occur in people aged 75 or older. One in 10 cases are attributed to genetics.
Other causes include age, smoking and other health conditions, including diabetes. About 80 percent of pancreatic cancer patients have some form of diabetes.
WHY IS IT SO LETHAL?
There is no screening method for pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer typically does not show symptoms in the early stages, when it would be more manageable.
Sufferers tend to start developing the tell-tale signs – jaundice and abdominal pain – around stage 3 or 4, when it has likely already spread to other organs.
WHAT ARE THE SURVIVAL RATES?
For all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year survival rate is 20 percent. At five years, that rate falls to just nine percent.
If the cancer is caught in stage 1A, the five year survival rates is about 14 percent and 12 percent for 1B.
At stage 2, those rates are seven and five percent, respectively. For a pancreatic cancer in its third stage, only three percent of people will survive another five yaers.
By stage IV, the five-year survival rate falls to just one percent.
WHAT ARE THE TREATMENT OPTIONS?
The only effective treatment is removal of the pancreas. This proves largely ineffective for those whose cancer has spread to other organs. In those cases, palliative care is advised to ease their pain at the end of their life.
Its prevalence has climbed by about on percent each year, but its survival rate hasn’t budged.
Nine percent, or 44,330 people, will die of the disease in 2018, as soul legend Aretha Franklin did earlier this year, and just as thousands have in years prior.
Many of these patients are diagnosed in the third or fourth disease of the stage, simply because the pancreas’s location in the center of the body makes it difficult to detect symptoms before tumors have metastasized.
So until medical imaging like CT scans are affordable enough for more patients to do more regularly, there is little to be done about earlier diagnosis.
Even more disheartening for patients, we have recently learned that some pancreatic cancer cells are practically immune to chemotherapy.
The treatment might seem to begin working against portions of the tumors, then appear to stop working.
Scientists think that this is because the cancer ‘learns’ which cells are vulnerable and which are resistant. While the chemo is chipping away at the weaker cells, the resistant ones multiply out of control.
The drug, then, is fighting a losing battle.
One of the ways that scientists suspect pancreatic become resistant starts with so-called stellate cells in the pancreas itself (rather than the tumors).
When they are activated, these cells become more fibrous and hard. When this happens at a healthy rate, stellates help to protect the pancreas.
This shielding effect can be harmful to the organ if stellates are too active or stick around too long, blocking the function of the pancreas.
Cancer switches on these armor cells and they form tough scar tissue. That scar tissue keeps chemotherapy from reaching its target.
The proliferation of the hard, scar-tissue stellates also seems to excite the cancer, encouraging it to grow faster and spread further.
But a new drug, called metavert, may counteract that process, the new Cedars-Sinai research suggests.
The team discovered that metavert, which they have been developing for the last three years, not only prevented and combatted chemo resistance, but also seemed to boost the effectiveness of both chemo and radiation treatments in mice.
In fact, treatment improved survival rates by as much as 50 percent in one of the series of mouse studies.
‘This is an exciting step toward improving survival rates in pancreatic cancer patients,’ said study lead author Dr Mouad Edderkaoui.
He and his team are already in the process of making a version of the drug that can be tested in human patients, and it may be their best hope yet at beating the vicious cancer.