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Pancreatic Cancer Health Center

New Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Activates Immune System

In Early Study, Strategy Shrank Tumors in Some Patients
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 24, 2011 -- A novel approach to pancreatic cancer treatment that activates the immune system works in some patients, according to a new study.

The treatment works by destroying the ''scaffolding'' around cancer cells, says researcher Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, an associate professor of medicine in the division of hematology/oncology and the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, University of Pennsylvania.

"The therapy is an antibody," he says. ''Instead of binding to the cancer, this antibody binds to a molecule in the immune system, and that is CD40," he tells WebMD. Next, the immune system is activated, allowing it to attack the so-called scaffolding around the cancer cells. The scaffolding is destroyed and the tumor falls apart.

The process is somewhat like attacking a brick wall by dissolving the mortar in the wall, he says.

In the study, the new approach extended overall survival by nearly two months compared to conventional treatments. Progression-free survival, the length of time during which the tumor did not grow, was more than three months longer.

The results are encouraging, says William C. Phelps, PhD, director of preclinical and translational cancer research at the American Cancer Society, Atlanta. He reviewed the findings for WebMD.

"Pancreatic cancer is probably one of the most dismal of cancers, because there is very little effective treatment available and the course is rapid," Phelps tells WebMD.

The study findings are published in Science.

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment: Back Story

In 2010, about 43,140 people were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to the American Cancer Society; 36,800 died.

Treatment is a challenge, Vonderheide says, because about 80% of people diagnosed have a tumor that is not operable.

For those patients, the standard treatment is chemotherapy with a drug known as gemcitabine (Gemzar). Another option, Vonderheide says, is to combine it with another drug, erlotinib (Tarceva).

But better options are needed, he says. "There is a huge need to find new approaches," he tells WebMD.

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment: Study Details

The researchers studied the new immune therapy for pancreatic cancer in mice and in people. In the human study, 21 patients with surgically incurable pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, the most common type of pancreatic cancer, were given the combination of gemcitabine with the new antibody treatment, known as CP-870,893.

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