By combining chemotherapy and vitamin A, researchers have successfully reduced pancreatic cancer cell proliferation. Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the disease, with a survival rate of just 3 percent.
Traditional cancer treatment strategies – including chemotherapy and radiotherapy – are relatively ineffective against pancreatic cancer. While surgery has a higher success rate at removing the tumor tissue, the cancer has most often already metastasized by the time a diagnosis is made.
To develop a new approach to pancreatic cancer treatment, researchers at QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute focused on a new drug target: stromal cells. Up to 80 percent of pancreatic cancer tissue is made up of stromal cells, which surround and communicate with the cancer cells. These relatively-normal cells have a major impact on the progression of the pancreatic tumor, making them a key target for new cancer therapies.
Using both cell cultures and mice models, the researchers tested a combined therapy targeting both the cancerous tissue, and the surrounding stromal cells. Gemcitabine chemotherapy was paired with vitamin A, and the researchers noted both a reduction in cancer cell proliferation and invasion of surrounding tissue.
“This is the first time that we have combined vitamin A with chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer,” said Professor Hemant Kocher from QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute. “The results are so promising that we’re now taking this into a clinical trial.”
By targeting both cell types, the researchers believe that multiple cell signaling pathways used by cancer cells to spread, could be interrupted. If the cancer cells are unable to communicate with the surrounding stromal cells, the tumor is unable to grow as aggressively as it would in the absence of treatment.
“Pancreatic cancer is extremely hard to treat by chemotherapy, so this finding is important because vitamin A targets the non-cancerous tissue and makes the existing chemotherapy more effective, killing the cancer cells and shrinking tumors,” said Kocher. “This could potentially be applicable to other cancers because if we try to understand the cancer as a whole, including its surrounding tissue, we may be able to develop new and better treatments.”
As a result of the preclinical studies, the researchers have now launched a clinical trial, STARPAC, to test the effectiveness of the combination therapy in patients. The trial – led by Barts Cancer Institute’s Centre for Experimental Cancer Medicine – is currently recruiting participants.
“The majority of experimental work was done as part of my PhD project, and I am excited that our hard work in the laboratory is now being tested in the form of a clinical trial,” said QMUL PhD student Elisabete Carapuça. “We hope that it will benefit patients facing this awful disease.”