Pancreatic Cancer: Latest Research

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2021

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about the scientific research being done to learn more about this type of cancer and how to treat it. Use the menu to see other pages.

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 best diagnostic and treatment options 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 "Immunotherapy" and "Targeted therapy," below), as well as to potentially 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.

  • Circulating tumor (ct)DNA. This refers to DNA that is shed by cancer cells into the bloodstream. It can now be detected and analyzed through a simple blood draw (or, less commonly, a urine sample) using current technologies. ctDNA is being studied as a tool for monitoring response to treatment, for observing early signs of disease recurrence, and as a way to determine the disease's resistance to ongoing treatment.

  • Immunotherapy. As explained in Types of Treatment, cancer researchers are studying several types of immunotherapy as potential treatments for pancreatic cancer.

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

    • Immune checkpoint inhibitors, such as anti-PD-1 antibodies, are already approved for other types of cancer, including melanoma and lung cancer. However, they are not yet approved for pancreatic cancer except for the few patients with tumors that have high microsatellite instability (see Types of Treatment). Researchers are looking at other drugs that can harness a person's immune system in different ways. Ongoing studies in pancreatic cancer are testing the combination of different immunotherapies with each other or with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other targeted agents.

    • In addition, researchers are studying methods to collect and genetically modify a person’s T cells, which are a type of white blood cell. This is called adoptive immunotherapy. While this approach (such as chimeric antigen receptor therapy, or CAR T-cell therapy) has advanced the way doctors treat some blood-based cancers such as leukemia and myeloma, researchers are still trying to learn how to apply it in solid tumors such as pancreatic cancer.

  • Targeted therapy. As discussed in the Types of Treatment section, the only targeted therapies currently approved for pancreatic cancer are erlotinib, which is no longer commonly used; olaparib, which is limited to pancreatic cancers associated with a germline (hereditary) BRCA mutation; and larotrectinib and entrectinib, which are limited to pancreatic cancers that harbor an NTRK fusion. 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. A gene called Ras is often mutated in pancreatic cancer, and new drugs that target specific Ras mutations are currently being tested. An additional strategy under evaluation entails inhibiting autophagy, a process used by cancer cells for self-protection by providing extra nutrients and keeping anticancer drugs from destroying them. 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, more effective types of standard chemotherapy continue to be researched.

  • 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/supportive care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current pancreatic cancer treatments to improve comfort and quality of life for patients.

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:

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