Sept. 24, 2009 (Berlin) -- Scientists are developing a pill that makes difficult-to-treat pancreatic cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy, paving the way for a new approach to treating the disease that killed actor Patrick Swayze.
The pill inhibits the action of a protein called TAK-1 that makes pancreatic cancer cells resistant to chemotherapy.
Overcoming resistance to chemotherapy is the greatest challenge to treating pancreatic cancer, says study researcher Davide Melisi, MD, PhD, a staff physician at the National Cancer Institute in Naples, Italy.
"Pancreatic cancer is an incurable malignancy, resistant to every anticancer treatment. Targeting TAK-1 could be a strategy to revert this resistance, increasing the efficacy of chemotherapy," Melisi tells WebMD. "When you turn TAK-1 off, all the shields of the pancreatic cancer cells get turned off, so chemotherapy can get to them."
In test tube experiments, the researchers treated pancreatic cancer cells with the TAK-1 inhibitor pill. Then the cells were treated with the standard cancer drugs Gemzar, Eloxatin, and an experimental form of Camptosar.
"The drug increased the effectiveness of the chemotherapy drugs 70-fold," Melisi says.
The effectiveness of the pill was confirmed in experiments in mice with pancreatic cancer. First the mice were treated with Gemzar alone. The drug was ineffective, he says.
But when mice were given Gemzar and the TAK-1 inhibitor together, their tumors shrank and they lived longer.
The findings were presented at a meeting of the European Cancer Organization and the European Society of Medical Oncology.
Melisi says the drug company Lilly is developing the TAK-1 blocker. The researchers hope to start human trials in 2010.
Josep Tabernero, MD, head of the GI tumor unit at the Vall d'Hebron University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain, says that new approaches for pancreatic cancer are desperately needed. "It's one of the deadliest cancers, with virtually all patients with advanced metastatic disease dying within six months."
"Anything that would increase the effectiveness of current therapies is welcome. But we need to be cautious as not everything that works [in the test tube and animals] pans out in the patient setting," Tabernero tells WebMD.