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Potential New Therapies Help Outsmart Pancreatic Cancer

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While every disease has unique characteristics and challenges, pancreatic cancer can be particularly difficult to treat.

Doctor examining lower abdomen of female patient.

Research teams around the world are working to uncover novel ways to attack this disease. Every day doctors learn more about how new treatments, such as immunotherapies, could help treat pancreatic cancer more effectively.

Johns Hopkins surgical oncologist Christopher Wolfgang, M.D., Ph.D. , explains what makes pancreatic cancer so challenging and why immunotherapy may result in treatment improvements in the near future.

Treating Pancreatic Cancer on Two Fronts

According to Wolfgang, winning the war against pancreatic cancer means effectively ridding someone of the disease. “To do that, we need to fight and win two battles,” he says.

Comprehensive pancreatic cancer treatment must address the following.

  • Local disease: This refers to the primary tumor in the pancreas, and is called Stage 1. If caught at an early stage, surgery (sometimes with chemotherapy after surgery) may effectively win this battle, completely removing all signs of cancer.
  • Systemic disease: In stages 2, 3 and 4, pancreatic cancer cells can spread — undetected — to other parts of the body. At some point, cells shed off of a pancreatic tumor and spread, or metastasize, throughout the body. This spreading can happen before patients show symptoms. Wolfgang refers to these cells as “seeds” of metastatic disease. “When you plant grass seeds in your yard, you don’t see grass right away. Still, you know the seeds are there, and eventually the grass grows,” he says. Because doctors can’t always detect this microscopic disease at first, it can be much more difficult to fight.

Local Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

At the early stages of pancreatic cancer, surgery may effectively treat a tumor in the pancreas.

Procedures for local cancer may include the following.

  • Whipple operation: This procedure, officially called a pancreaticoduodenectomy, treats tumors in the head or neck of the pancreas. During this surgery, a surgeon aims to remove all potential disease in and around the pancreas, and then reconnects all structures so the digestive system works more effectively. Surgeons at Johns Hopkins have revolutionized the performance of this operation over the previous four decades, dramatically decreasing complications and mortality from the operation. Johns Hopkins surgeons perform the most Whipple operations annually in the United States.
  • Distal pancreatectomy: When a tumor grows in the body or tail of the pancreas, it’s removed with a distal pancreatectomy. In this procedure, a surgeon removes a portion of the pancreas (where the tumor resides) as well as the spleen, which could harbor microscopic cancer cells.

Systemic Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

Until recently, combinations of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery were only somewhat effective at treating systemic pancreatic cancer (cancer that has spread or metastasized to other parts of the body). Today, researchers are focused on developing biological therapies that are more targeted in how they attack pancreatic cancer cells.

For example, advances in immunotherapy are changing the way doctors treat pancreatic cancer. In clinical trials, doctors use a novel pancreatic cancer vaccine to fuel the pancreatic cancer cells with certain molecules, or markers. These markers make the cancer cells vulnerable to attack by the immune system. Another type of immunotherapy drug is then used to help the body’s immune system identify and destroy pancreatic cancer cells.

More research is necessary, but these evolving therapies have the potential to revolutionize how doctors treat pancreatic cancer both today and in the future.

Physicians at the Skip Viragh Center for Pancreas Cancer Clinical Research and Patient Care

Meet Our Pancreatic Cancer Experts

Our team is a world leader in the diagnosis and management of pancreatic cancer, leading all institutions in novel therapies and innovative clinical trials.

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