Despite the best efforts of researchers and clinicians over the past fifty years, there has been little impact on the treatment of pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal of cancers. Only six per cent of people survive five years after diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal cells within the pancreas grow in an uncontrolled way. The pancreas is a small gland that sits behind the stomach. It produces hormones, such as insulin, that control sugar levels in the blood.The pancreas also produces enzymes that help the body digest food.
Causes of pancreatic cancer and risk factors
While the causes of pancreatic cancer are not fully understood, there are a number of factors associated with the risk of developing the disease including:
- tobacco smoking
- chronic inflammation of the pancreas – called pancreatitis, alcohol is an important risk factor
- certain inherited genetic conditions such as hereditary pancreatitis syndrome, Lynch Syndrome, hereditary atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome, hereditary BRCA2-related breast and ovarian cancer and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
- long-term diabetes (Type 2)
Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of the disease, the severity of symptoms and the person’s general health. Treatment options can include surgery to remove part or all of the pancreas and nearby organs that may be affected, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy, and targeted therapies to destroy cancer cells. Research is ongoing to find new ways to diagnose and treat different types of cancer.
Pancreatic research at the Perkins
Solid tumours such as pancreatic cancer form their own blood vessel supply within the tumour tissue. The blood vessels then provide oxygen and nutrients and promote cancer growth and metastatic spread. There is a fundamental difference between the blood vessels in a tumour and normal tissue. In contrast to normal blood vessels, tumour blood vessels function very poorly which results in several obstacles for successful anti-cancer therapy. Current efforts attempt to eradicate tumour vessels to starve the cancer. Indeed, this treatment slows tumour growth, but a relapse is inevitable and the cancer grows back, often in a more aggressive form. Professor Ruth Ganss’s research aims to make tumour blood vessels more normal which then allows drugs and immune cells to reach deeper into the tumours and fight the cancer. Her laboratory has contributed to a paradigm shift in cancer research by demonstrating that tumour blood vessels can indeed be “normalized”. The goal of her team is to develop highly effective combination therapies which change tumour vessels to improve access of anti-cancer drugs. This is particularly important for pancreatic cancers which are resistant to any kind of chemotherapy available.