Drug mixture offers new hope in fight versus pancreatic cancer
It’s an aggressive disease and worse, by the time symptoms show up enough to be diagnosed, it’s usually advanced and the cancer has spread to distant organs in the body. By this time, treatment options are limited and usually, futile.
When the cancer has spread, patients have an average survival of between two and six months. Five-year survival rates are very low — around five percent — according to the United States National Cancer Institute.
It’s pancreatic cancer — and while it’s rare, it’s deadly. It’s the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. and the fifth leading cause worldwide. Each year, about 44,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S., and 37,000 people die of the disease.
Thanks in part to the popularity of Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, whose death brought widespread attention to the disease, scientists are now keen searching for ways to fight this cancer aggressively.
Thanks, too, to funding from Cancer Research UK, Merck Research Laboratories, USA and various other institutions, researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed an experimental drug combination that BBC News hails as “a new weapon against pancreatic cancer.”
Combo drugs work better than one drug
Working on laboratory mice genetically engineered to have pancreatic cancer, the researchers combined the chemotherapy agent gemcitabine — already being used to treat pancreatic cancer patients — with an experimental drug called MRK003 and gave this to the mice. They found that this set off a chain of events that ultimately destroys cancer cells.
The combination treatment promotes tumor cell death and suppresses tumor growth, the investigators found.
MRK003, a gamma secretase inhibitor, worked by starving the pancreatic tumor cells of oxygen, promoting the widespread death of the cancer cells.
The chemical can block the actions of a protein called “gamma secretase” that plays a range of roles in the body. Endothelial cells that provide nourishment for the pancreatic tumor were also killed by MRK003 – so by denying nutrition to the tumors, their growth was suppressed.
The researchers also found that the combined effect of these two drugs was greater than the sum of the individual effects of each drug — resulting in intensified killing of the pancreatic cancer cells.
“We’ve discovered why these two drugs together set off a domino effect of molecular activity to switch off cell survival processes and destroy pancreatic cancer cells,” said Prof. David Tuveson, one of the study’s authors. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.
The investigators also found that while the cancer-stricken mice survived just nine days when given a placebo, they survived 26 days with the combination treatment.