A new study in mice by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has found that a specialized type of immunotherapy - even when used without chemotherapy or radiation - can boost survival from pancreatic cancer, a nearly almost-lethal disease, by more than 75 percent. The findings are so promising, human clinical trials are planned within the next year.
The study tested the immunotherapy on mice genetically engineered to grow pancreatic tumors very similar to those of human pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to treat, because it recruits the body's natural systems to construct both a tough physical barrier around tumors as well as an immune-cloaking device that keeps other, disease-fighting immune cells from recognizing the cancer.
Unlike any other cancer, pancreatic tumors are able to survive with a significantly decreased blood supply. As a consequence, chemotherapy, commonly administered via the bloodstream, has a difficult time getting inside. The tumors not only commonly grow quite large before patients will ever notice something is wrong, but they are very prone to metastasize, or spread to other sites in the body.
The new study, published in Cancer Cell, breaches pancreatic cancer's physical and immunological walls by using immunotherapy, a type of treatment that harnesses or refines the body's own immune system, to recognize and destroy cancer cells. The researchers devised a therapy using T cells, disease-fighting immune cells, that they engineered in the lab to recognize and attack pancreatic cancer.
T-cell therapy is showing promise as a treatment for several types of blood cancers, but aiming these cells at solid tumors like pancreatic cancer has historically proven more difficult. Part of the challenge comes from the access to tumor cells - or lack thereof. T-cell therapy is administered through the bloodstream, like chemo.
But to their surprise, the T cells - engineered to recognize and kill cells bearing a protein called mesothelin, which is overproduced by virtually all pancreatic tumors - got into the mice's tumors and started attacking them.
The animal models that received T cells engineered to recognize a non-cancerous protein survived on average 54 days after their cancer became detectable. Those that received the mesothelin-directed cells lived an average of 96 days, a 78 percent bump.
Although the researchers weren't expecting to take this first version of the T-cell therapy to clinic, that's now their plan. Their team has already built the human version of the special T-cell protein that recognizes mesothelin. They're planning to launch a phase 1 clinical trial to test the therapy's safety in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer within the next year.
Based on material originally posted by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.