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Glimmers of hope for pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is notoriously hard to treat and research is the key to change this.  After listening to international scientists speak about the disease this week, we believe we are on the cusp of big things that can offer hope for future pancreatic cancer patients.

Sharing and collaborating is key to speeding up advances

Talks at this year’s Beatson International Cancer Conference in Glasgow from 3-6th July focused on the use of animals in studying cancer and revealing new ways to treat it. The conference covered a whole host of cancer types but the high number of pancreatic cancer talks were what captivated me the most.

We are now at a time where over half of all cancer patients survive their disease. This is great news, but it is not an equal spread across all cancer types. As we previously blogged about, while some cancer types can be cured, like testicular cancer which has a survival rate of 98%, there are others, like pancreatic cancer, where survival rates are horrifyingly low. Just 3% of pancreatic patients survive for five years after diagnosis and a shocking 1% survive for ten years or more. This makes investing in pancreatic research all the more crucial.

In total, there were eight talks focusing on pancreatic cancer at the Beatson Conference.  And there were many others which, whilst not specifically looking at this disease, could still provide information which might be relevant to it.

The brightest stars in a sky full of stars

The talks that stood out to me were Professor Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke from Bart’s Cancer Institute in London, who spoke in the opening session. She explained how a past mentor had advised that working on pancreatic cancer would be too difficult. The disease spreads early, is difficult to remove by surgery and is often resistant to current drug treatments. He suggested she should change her focus to a different cancer type. But she remained determined, and the benefits of having stuck to her guns looks like it may actually start to pay off. She is currently working on a dual combination treatment plan for pancreatic cancer, which is partly funded by Worldwide Cancer Research.

Other talks looked at pancreatic cancer from a wide range of angles. Tumours are complicated and intricate. They are made up of a range of different cell types which is why they are so difficult to treat and drugs are often used in combination to attack tumours in a variety of ways.

Dr Jen Morton popped over from the Beatson Institute, based in Glasgow, and discussed her work on CXCR2 which recently made the headlines. The team found that a protein called CXCR2 helps pancreatic cancer spread around the body. But using an experimental drug, which blocks CXCR2, the researchers stopped the tumour spreading in mice and could improve the patient’s response to immunotherapy in pancreatic cancer.

Professor Owen Sansom was also on home turf at the conference as he is currently Interim Director of the Beatson Institute. His talk didn’t specifically focus on pancreatic cancer but a high number of others acknowledged their collaborations with him and the vital role of his pancreatic mouse models. Worldwide Cancer Research are currently funding some of his pancreatic cancer research.

The search for answers is an international one

Dr Phoebe Phillips  joined us all the way from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia where she is head of the Pancreatic cancer Translational Research Group. She presented her work developing new ways of accessing and destroying tumour cells in the pancreas.  At this meeting she focussed on cells called stromal cells. These are connective tissue cells and the interaction between stromal cells and tumour cells is known to play a major role in the growth and progression of tumours. Stromal cells are therefore a potential pancreatic treatment target (target means they can send drugs to these cells to destroyed the whole tumour).

Dr Ben Stanger, who jetted in from the University of Pennsylvania, USA, presented findings about intertumoral heterogeneity (how no two pancreatic cancers are the same). This tied in well with Professor Richard Marais’ keynote talk on melanoma skin cancer which we blogged about last week. It is becoming more and more clear that patients need to be seen as unique individuals when trying to identify the best therapy for their cancer. While breast cancer is wildly different from pancreatic cancer, pancreatic cancer in one person is also very different from another person’s. Only by understanding each tumour at the genetic level can we ensure a patient receives the very best treatment for them, known as precision medicine.

To further complicate things, there are also a mixture of cells within a tumour. While one treatment may kill one group of cells, another group of cells may survive and explode in number. This means a new treatment is then needed as the tumour is now a different beast.

There were other talks on many other cancer types, all of which reinforced my belief that we really are on the cusp of a new era in cancer treatments. While we aren’t quite at the stage to be saying “this is the tried and tested next big thing to revolutionise pancreatic cancer treatment in patients” we have great minds around the world working on it. We are seeing progress, and with that comes glimmers of hope. And as someone whose close family member was recently given a terminal diagnosis for a disease with no cure, I for one know just how important hope can be.

Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

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