Researchers have found a way to hit pancreatic cancer hard with a drug-delivery device that puts a lethal combination of four chemo drugs directly into the tumor while limiting the impact on the rest of the body.

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The researchers hope the new device will halt and potentially shrink tumors so that more pancreatic cancer patients qualify for surgery.

Pancreatic cancer is a killer, and to attack a killer you sometimes need to hit it with a highly toxic drug cocktail. However, doing this through the bloodstream only works in a few patients because of the widespread damage to the rest of the body.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill describes how they tested the implantable "iontophoretic device" in mice.

The researchers found that using the iontophoretic device to deliver a particularly toxic mix of four chemotherapy drugs stopped pancreatic tumors in the mice from growing - and in some cases even shrank them - while sparing the rest of the body.

Senior author Jen Jen Yeh, an associate professor of surgery and pharmacology in the UNC School of Medicine, says:

"It's an exciting approach because there is so little systemic toxicity that it leaves room to administer additional drugs against cancer cells that may have spread in the rest of the body."

In their study, the team found that compared with intravenous delivery, the iontophoretic device "resulted in better tumor response and tolerability," when used to attack pancreatic tumors in mice with FOLFIRINOX - a combination of the chemotherapy drugs folinic acid (leucovorin), fluorouracil, irinotecan and oxaliplatin.

Helping more patients qualify for surgery

FOLFIRINOX is a first-line treatment for pancreatic cancer and has been shown to halt or shrink tumors in nearly a third of patients. However, because it is so toxic to the rest of the body, there are many patients who cannot tolerate it when it is delivered through the bloodstream.

Fast facts about pancreatic cancer
  • Nearly 70% of all pancreatic cancer patients are at least 65 years old
  • About 20% of all pancreatic cancer cases are attributable to cigarette smoking
  • The disease is about 30% more common in men than in women.

Learn more about pancreatic cancer

The implantable device uses an electric field to drive the chemotherapy drugs directly into the tumor.

The new study follows another published a year ago where the team showed the first successful use of the iontophoretic device in treating human pancreatic tumors grafted into mice and dogs.

Pancreatic cancer is the cause of 7% of all cancer deaths and ranks fourth as a cause of cancer death in both men and women every year in the US, where rates of the disease have been rising by 1.2% a year over the last 10 years.

Early stage pancreatic cancer usually has no symptoms and spreads quickly to the rest of the body, making it difficult to detect and harder to treat when it is found in its later stages.

Consequently, only one in four patients survive more than a year after diagnosis - a statistic that has not changed in over 40 years.

Surgery to remove the pancreatic tumor is currently the best chance of cure, but unfortunately only 15% of patients have operable tumors.

The hope is that the new device will halt and potentially shrink tumors so that more patients with localized and locally advanced pancreatic cancer qualify for surgery.

The team is planning to get the device into clinical trials in the next few years.

First author Dr. James D. Byrne, who is studying medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, says:

"If this works in humans, we hope the device can be used as a plug-and-play approach to delivering the latest, most promising drug regimens for patients who have a dire need for new and better treatments."

In August 2015, Medical News Today learned how researchers found a biomarker for pancreatic cancer in urine that could lead to a low-cost, non-invasive test for earlier diagnosis of the disease.