University of Pennsylvania scientists have found a novel way of treating pancreatic cancer which involves attacking the dense tissue surrounding the cancer. Researchers say the new approach shows promise in battling one of the most stubborn of all cancers.
Cancer of the pancreas is one of the deadliest forms of the disease. It is almost always fatal, and current treatments are of little help.
In an effort to find something better, the Pennsylvania researchers developed an antibody that would activate the patient's own immune system to attack the cancer, much like a vaccine.
But lead author Robert Vonderheide says what happened was unexpected.
Instead of attacking the tumor itself, he says the immune system targeted what's called the scaffold, the dense tissue surrounding the cancer. "And it's a bit like attacking a brick wall by dissolving the mortar in the brick wall without actually having to bash down the bricks themselves. The immune system was able to eat away at this tissue surrounding the cancer, and the cancer really fell apart in the face of that."
Vonderheide and his colleagues tried the approach on a small number of human patients, just 21. None of them were "cured" of the disease, but several had promising changes, such as reductions in tumor size.
To better understand what was happening in the human patients, the researchers turned to laboratory mice that had been genetically engineered to develop pancreatic cancer.
"And we were able to test this antibody in these mice to understand exactly how it was that their immune system is being turned on," he says. "And it was the insights that we were able to gather in this regard in the laboratory that allowed us to understand what was happening in our patients."
Vonderheide says the information could help scientists working on new drugs for cancer patients.
"What's important about that is we now have this tool, this ability to test our ideas in the mice with pancreatic cancer, and only pick those therapies that are successful in the mice before bringing any other therapy forward to patients."
The study by Robert Vonderheide and his colleagues is published in the journal Science.