Pancreatic Cancer: Latest Research

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2013

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about the scientific research being done now to learn more about this type of cancer and how to treat it. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Doctors are working to learn more about pancreatic cancer, ways to prevent it, how to best treat it, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with this disease. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. Always talk with your doctor about the diagnostic and treatment options best for you.

Early detection. Because the best chance of successful treatment is when pancreatic cancer is found early, ongoing research is focused on finding and using special blood tests, diagnostic imaging tools, and other approaches to find pancreatic cancer at its earliest stages, even at precancerous stages (known as pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia, or PanIN lesions), before it spreads. These screening approaches are typically being used for people who have a high risk for pancreatic cancer, such as those with a strong family history or a known genetic condition that increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. It is not yet known if these screening tools could be used effectively for the general population.

Genetic/molecular studies. In cancer, damaged or abnormal genes cause uncontrolled cell growth. Many new research developments are based on identifying damaged genes and proteins. Pancreatic tumor samples can be analyzed using a variety of molecular techniques, such as DNA sequencing and mutational analysis, to look for genetic changes. This information can then be used to develop new drugs that target these changes (see Targeted therapy below), as well as potentially to screen for pancreatic cancer in people who have a high risk of the disease. At this point, these tools are only being used in clinical trials.

Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is designed to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer. It uses materials either made by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function. One example of immunotherapy is a cancer vaccine, which stimulates a person’s immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. A number of clinical trials have been done or are underway to study vaccines in a variety of types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. Depending on the circumstances, vaccines may be given either after, during, or instead of chemotherapy. Learn more about immunotherapy.

Targeted therapy. As discussed in the Treatment section, erlotinib is the only targeted therapy currently approved for pancreatic cancer, in combination with gemcitabine. Other drugs that may help block tumor growth and spread are being studied for pancreatic cancer, both as single drugs and as part of combination therapy. However, to date no other targeted therapies, including bevacizumab (Avastin) and cetuximab (Erbitux), have been shown to increase survival for patients with pancreatic cancer. A gene called Ras is often mutated in pancreatic cancer, and drugs that target this gene are being studied, either alone or in combination with other types of targeted therapy or chemotherapy. Researchers are also studying drugs that can break down the stroma, which is the fibrous tissue that surrounds cancer cells, is involved in maintaining the cancer, and may be a physical barrier preventing drugs from reaching the tumor. Learn more about targeted therapy.

Gene therapy.  Gene therapy is the delivery of specific genes to cancer cells, which are often carried by specially designed viruses. These include normal genes that are delivered into the center of cancer cells; as the cancer cells divide, the working genes that were inserted in the cell replace the abnormal genes that contribute to cancer growth.

Chemotherapy. Several drugs have shown promise for advanced pancreatic cancer. These include TH-302, a drug that works when oxygen is low (called hypoxia); and MM-398, a different formulation of a drug called irinotecan. Another drug called tegafur-gimeracil-oteracil potassium (TS-1) works similarly to capecitabine; it is commonly used in other parts of the world, such as Asia, but is not currently approved in the United States.

Cancer stem cells. Pancreatic cancer stem cells are cells in the tumor that may be particularly resistant to standard therapies. Research is currently focused on identifying treatments that may specifically target those cancer stem cells.

Supportive care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current pancreatic cancer treatments in order to improve patients’ comfort and quality of life.

Looking for More about the Latest Research?

If you would like additional information about the latest areas of research regarding pancreatic cancer, explore these related items that take you outside of this guide:

  • To find clinical trials specific to your diagnosis, talk with your doctor or search online clinical trial databases now.
  • Review research announced at recent scientific meetings or in ASCO’s peer-reviewed journals.

  • Visit ASCO’s CancerProgress.Net website to learn more about the historical pace of research for pancreatic cancer. Please note this link takes you to a separate ASCO website.

The next section addresses how to cope with the symptoms of the disease or the side effects of its treatment. Use the menu on the side of your screen to select Coping with Side Effects, or you can select another section, to continue reading this guide.