A great deal of progress has been made in the treatment of many kinds of cancer, but long-term prognosis and survival rates for pancreatic cancer are lower than for other cancers, in part because people rarely know they have it until it has spread; and so it is typically diagnosed at later stages.

Some of that may be changing.

A promising new treatment for pancreatic cancer not only appears to eradicate tumors, it also prevents the cancer from spreading. The treatment is a combination of radiation and immunotherapy.

“I’ve never been more hopeful about the possibility of improving the survival rate for this disease.”

“This is the first time we’ve seen the eradication of a pancreatic tumor that suggests the cancer cell has memory, meaning we can stop the disease from coming back,” lead author, Sana Karam, of the University of Colorado Cancer Center, said. “Ultimately, this could alter the way doctors treat pancreatic cancer patients in the near future.”

The study, which relied on animal models, focused on the most common form of pancreatic cancer, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, which accounts for 90 percent of all cases.

When combined, radiation and a new immunotherapy triggered an immune response that cells continued to “remember.” The combination achieved tumor eradication even after being re-challenged.

The immunotherapy component of the treatment used an antibody complex (aPD1-IL2v) that allowed for the expansion of tumor-antigen specific T-cells. According to Karam, combining the two therapies made it possible for them to focus on eradicating “bad” T-cells throughout the immune system, even in distant locations.

Similar immunotherapy research on other cancers is being conducted in Europe. But this is the first time it’s been combined with radiation therapy and focused on pancreatic cancer tumors. “When a disease is metastatic, you want to recognize and attack the cell type everywhere, from the pancreas to the liver, blood and more,” Karam explained. “This approach does exactly that in our study.”

“In just one radiation session, we saw a remarkable immune response that could change how we treat pancreatic cancer patients,” she said. “I’ve never been more hopeful about the possibility of improving the survival rate for this disease.”

The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus researchers hope to conduct clinical trials using this therapy in the near future.

Jaundice, fatigue, stomach and back pain, gastrointestinal symptoms and weight-loss are among the symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Symptoms appear and progress differently in different people, however, depending on where the cancer is. Most commonly, the cancer starts in the ducts of the pancreas. The study is published in Cancer Cell.