Pancreatic Cancer Overview

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What`s New in Pancreatic Cancer Research? TOPICS

What`s new in pancreatic cancer research?

Research into the causes and treatment of pancreatic cancer is going on in many medical centers around the world.

Genetics and finding cancer early

Scientists are learning more about some of the changes in DNA that cause cells to become cancer. In some families an inherited risk increases the chance that members will have pancreatic cancer.

Researchers have learned that pancreatic cancer does not form suddenly. It develops over many years in a series of steps. In the early steps there are changes in a small number of genes, and the duct cells of the pancreas do not look very abnormal. In later steps there are greater changes in several genes and the duct cells look more abnormal.

This information is being used to develop tests for finding acquired (not inherited) genetic changes in pancreatic cancer pre-cancerous conditions

For now, imaging tests like endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), ERCP, and genetic tests for changes in certain genes are options for people with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer. But these tests are not people at normal risk who have no symptoms.


The major focus of much research is on finding better treatments for pancreatic cancer.

Chemotherapy: Many clinical trials are going on to test new ways to combine chemo drugs. Other studies are testing the best ways to combine chemo with radiation or other treatments.

Targeted therapies: As researchers have learned more about what makes pancreatic cancer cells different from normal cells, they have started to develop newer drugs that should be able to attack only the cancer cells. These “targeted therapies” may be another option for treating pancreatic cancer. They may prove to be useful along with, or instead of, current treatments. For the most part, they seem to have fewer side effects than the usual chemo drugs.

Growth factor inhibitors: Many types of cancer cells have certain molecules on their surface that help them to grow. These molecules are called growth factor receptors. Several drugs that target growth factor receptors are now being studied. One drug, erlotinib (Tarceva), is already approved for use along with gemcitabine.

Anti-angiogenesis factors: All cancers depend on the growth of new blood vessels (this is called angiogenesis) to nourish the cells. New drugs that can block this growth and thus starve the tumor are being studied in clinical trials.

Immune therapy: Immune therapies attempt to boost a person’s immune system to attack cancer cells. Some studies have shown promise for treating pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer vaccines are also being studied. These vaccines are meant to help a person’s own immune system to attack the cancer cells. This might cause tumors to shrink or help prevent them from coming back after surgery or other treatment.

Another form of immune therapy involves using man-made monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies are designed to lock onto specific antigens. Antigens are substances which can be recognized by the immune system. Certain kinds are found on cancer cells. Toxins or radioactive atoms can be attached to these antibodies, which bring them right to the cancer cells. The hope is that the antibodies will damage the cancer cells while leaving normal cells alone. These treatments are only being used in clinical trials at this time.

Radiation therapy: Some current studies are looking at different ways to give radiation to treat exocrine pancreas cancer. One study is looking at the effect of intraoperative radiation therapy, in which a single large dose of radiation is given to the pancreas at the time of surgery (in the operating room). Another study is looking at using a special type of radiation called proton beam radiation with chemo.

Matching the treatment to the person (called individualization of therapy): Some drugs seem to work better if certain types of gene changes can be found in the patient’s tumor. Finding markers that may predict how well a drug will work before it is given is an important area of research in pancreatic and other types of cancer.

Last Medical Review: 02/15/2013
Last Revised: 02/03/2014