There’s fresh hope in the fight against pancreatic cancer today with Australian researchers finding a link between a breast cancer drug and some forms of pancreatic cancer, including metastatic cancer.
Scientists also found a way to test which patients might be more likely to respond to the treatment.
Remarkably, the breast cancer drug outperformed standard chemo-only treatments at all stages of pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is incredibly difficult to treat and the 5-year survival rate after diagnosis stands at just 7 per cent, according to the Garvan Institute. Symptoms are difficult to detect in the early stages, meaning most cases are diagnosed once the cancer has spread to nearby organs.
For their study, which was published in the BMJ Journal Gut researchers looked at the effects of breast cancer drug palbociclib on mice and patient-derived samples for testing.
They found that palbociclib targets a major subtype of pancreatic cancer. Of the 550 tumour biopsies they analysed from patients, two thirds had a cellular pathway known as the ‘Cdk4/6 pathway’ switched on, which drove tumour growth.
The team found that the breast cancer drug switched off the Cdk4/6 protein and halted the growth of the tumour in the pancreas.
One of the most important discoveries to come from their study was that the RB protein – another protein in the Cdk4/6 pathway – was present in high levels in Cdk4/6 ‘ON’ tumours and so could act as a ‘biomarker’ of the tumour subtype.
“Having a good biomarker is essential for personalised medicine, because it gives us a way to predict who is likely to respond to treatment,” says Dr Angela Chou (Garvan & St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney), a pathologist and researcher who is first author on the new study told the Garvan Institute.
“Importantly, we can test RB levels quickly and easily by using standard preparations of biopsy tissue that are a part of the regular workflow in Australian diagnostic laboratories – so a test like this could be routine in the future.”
Patients and doctors have been crying out for an effective treatment solution for pancreatic caner, which accounts for 6 per cent of deaths worldwide.
While symptoms are difficult to detect, they include: pain in the upper abdomen, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, weight loss, changed bowel motions – either diarrhoea or severe constipation, and jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes, and dark urine).
People over the age of 65 are most at risk of breast cancer, along with smokers, diabetics, those with a family history of pancreatic, ovarian or colon cancer, and those living with pancreatitis.