Pancreatic Cancer: Latest Research

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

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.

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. The best chance of successful treatment is when pancreatic cancer is found early. This is why 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 before it spreads. This includes finding it at precancerous stages, known as pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia, or PanIN lesions. 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, and repairing them or changing how they work.

    Pancreatic tumor samples can be analyzed using a variety of molecular techniques, such as DNA sequencing and mutational analysis, to look for genetic changes. Some of these same analyses can now even also be performed on blood samples, as newer technologies allow for collection and analysis of tumor DNA present in the blood.

    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 cancer vaccines, which may be made from various sources, including pancreatic cancer cells, bacteria, or a person’s specific tumor cells. A number of clinical trials have been done or are ongoing that use vaccines to try to treat a variety of types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. Depending on the circumstances, vaccines may be given either after, during, or instead of chemotherapy.

    • Another type of immunotherapy are drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors, which include PD-1 and CTLA-4 antibodies. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are already approved for other types of cancer, like melanoma and lung cancer, but not for pancreatic cancer. In general, these drugs by themselves are not very effective for pancreatic cancer. However, they may work for the small number of patients who have pancreatic cancer with certain genetic mutations. Ongoing studies in pancreatic cancer are testing the combination of immune checkpoint inhibitors with chemotherapy or with other new immunotherapies.

      In addition, researchers are studying methods to collect and genetically modify a person’s T cells, which are a type of white blood cells. This is called adoptive immunotherapy.

    Learn more about the basics of immunotherapy.

  • Targeted therapy. As discussed in the Treatment Options 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, no other targeted therapies, including bevacizumab (Avastin) and cetuximab (Erbitux), have been shown to lengthen the lives of patients with pancreatic cancer. A gene called Ras is often mutated in pancreatic cancer. Researchers are very interested in Ras, but it has been difficult to develop drugs that target this specific gene.

    Researchers are also studying drugs that can break down the stroma, which is the fibrous-like connective tissue that surrounds cancer cells and is involved in maintaining the cancer. By disrupting the tumor-associated stroma, these drugs may allow chemotherapy to reach and destroy cancer cells more effectively. Learn more about the basics of 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. Then, as the cancer cells divide, the working genes that were inserted in the cell replace the abnormal genes that contribute to cancer growth.

  • Chemotherapy. Newer, stronger types of standard chemotherapy continue to be researched. One example is nanoliposomal irinotecan (see Treatment Options), which is now approved as a second-line treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer.

  • 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.

  • Palliative care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current pancreatic cancer treatments 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:

The next section in this guide is Coping with Treatment. It offers some guidance in how to cope with the physical, emotional, and social changes that cancer and its treatment can bring. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.