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Immunotherapy: A New Frontier for Pancreatic Cancer?

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Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are three of the most commonly used tools to fight cancer. For certain types of cancer, these treatments work effectively to rid the body of disease. For pancreatic cancer, however, these conventional therapies aren’t always enough.

For example, even when surgery can be used to remove all traces of a tumor, the disease often comes back after some time. This is because pancreatic cancer has a tendency to spread undetected outside the pancreas earlier than some other cancers. This microscopic disease spread cannot be removed with surgery and must be treated with medications, such as chemotherapy. Unfortunately for pancreatic cancer, the currently available chemotherapies have limited efficacy for many patients. This combination of traits makes pancreatic cancer particularly tough to treat.

Lei Zheng, M.D., Ph.D., a medical oncologist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, explains how recently developed immunotherapies currently being tested in clinical trials allow a patient’s immune system to attack pancreatic cancer cells more effectively.

Cancer and the Immune System

Cancer takes advantage of how the body’s immune system (or defense system) works. The cancer cells prevent immune cells from recognizing them as a threat. Cancer cells are then able to evade the immune system and grow and spread throughout the body.

Immunotherapy uses drugs to help the body’s immune system recognize and attack cancer. Doctors and scientists around the world are actively investigating immunotherapy for treating a variety of cancers, including pancreatic cancer.

“Based on previous and ongoing research, immunotherapy has promising potential for helping doctors treat pancreatic cancer of all stages and severity,” says Zheng.

Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine in Development

Scientists have developed a novel vaccine that attempts to help the body’s immune system identify and then fight cancer.

Zheng and a team of researchers are currently testing this pancreatic cancer vaccine in clinical trials. Johns Hopkins is at the forefront of development of this novel therapy, as researchers seek to learn more about how vaccine therapy could enhance pancreatic cancer treatment. While most vaccines are administered to prevent disease, this vaccine is used on patients already diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The vaccine is made up of inactivated pancreatic cancer cells, meaning the cells are incapable of growing. Scientists have altered these cells to release a certain molecule that attracts the immune cells to the cancer cells.

Vaccine therapy essentially triggers the body to attack the cancer cells in the pancreas as well as anywhere else in the body where the cancer may have spread. The vaccine’s ability to treat metastatic disease (when cancer spreads from the pancreas to another organ) is key because few treatments thus far have proved effective in the long term at treating systemic pancreatic cancer.

Researchers continue to investigate precisely how these therapies can best benefit patients. So far, this vaccine offers much potential in the fight against pancreatic cancer.

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