Receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is perhaps the most devastating news a person can receive. Despite aggressive treatment, the prognosis is not a good one. In fact, pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers known.Pancreatic cancers
are rarely found in the early stages when the cancerous cells
can be surgically removed. Symptoms such as pain in the upper abdomen, weight loss, and yellowing of the skin and eyes rarely occur before the disease has already reached advanced stages. The cancer quickly spreads to nearby organs in the early course of the disease, and even after surgery the cancer often returns. Traditional treatments
are not effective in the long run.
However, hope is on the horizon.
Currently there is a clinical trial testing a new vaccine to fight this usually fatal disease. Until now, even with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, patients could expect only a 20% chance of surviving five years post-diagnosis.
Pancreatic cancer patients involved in the trial received the vaccine at John Hopkins Hospital after surgery and then following radiation and chemotherapy. According to Daniel Laheru, an oncologist at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at John Hopkins University, the results are promising. “I think we're very encouraged. What makes it exciting is the science behind the vaccine.”What is the science behind the vaccine?
The vaccine is created from harmless, radiated pancreatic cancer tumors and uses genetically altered cells to create a molecule that attracts immune cells. This molecule then trains the immune cells to identify pancreatic tumors as cancer and attack. The vaccine actually teaches the immune system to recognize the cancer cells as foreign objects and launch an attack specifically aimed at them.
Laheru says, “The idea is that, once the immune system now recognizes cancer cells as being foreign, they have potentially the ability to recognize cancer at any point and kill them before they have the chance to spread."
The results have been promising so far. When patients receive only radiation and chemo, only 42% of them are alive after two years. But with the new vaccine, 76% of patients involved in the clinical trial are alive after two years.
Researchers plan to conduct another study next year. Pending results, they will seek FDA approval. The hope is that in the future, pancreatic cancer will no longer be associated with a death sentence.