Addressing the challenges of pancreatic cancer
17 November 2017
This week, to mark World Pancreatic Cancer Day Dr Sandra Roche of the National Institute of Cellular Biotechnology wrote about the work carried out by the Pancreatic Cancer Research Group, NICB, DCU.
The Pancreatic Cancer Research Group is comprised of lab based researchers who collaborate nationally and internationally to tackle this challenging disease.
In Ireland, we work closely with clinicians in St Vincent’s University Hospital and St Luke’s Radiation Oncology Network and partnering with Cancer Trials Ireland to look at patient relevant material.
Internationally through the US-Ireland R&D Partnership Programme we collaborate with Prof Robert Straubinger in the University at Buffalo and Prof Chris Scott in Queens University Belfast.
This multinational group is funded in Ireland by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in Ireland, in the USA by National Institutes of Health (NIH), and by HSC Research & Development in Northern Ireland.
Pancreatic Cancer in Ireland
With approximately 500 people per year diagnosed with this disease in Ireland, pancreatic cancer is ranked the 9th (for women) and 11th (for men) most common cancer in Ireland.
However, there is much less awareness of pancreatic cancer compared to breast cancer or prostate cancer.
Data from the National Cancer Registry Ireland shows that after 5 years survival rate is approximately 7.5%. That's approximately 1 in every 13 people diagnosed who are are still alive after 5 years.
What causes Pancreatic Cancer and what are the symptoms?
The cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown; however, some of the factors known to increase the risk include tobacco smoke, alcohol, chronic pancreatitis, diabetes, being overweight and family history of pancreatic cancer.
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer include abdominal or mid back pain, jaundice, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, indigestion, change in stools and new onset diabetes.
These symptoms are often vague and may be associated with other less serious conditions.
Unfortunately, according to the National Cancer Registry Ireland, approximately 50% of pancreatic cancer patients in Ireland are diagnosed when the disease is at Stage IV.
This late stage diagnosis makes the disease even more difficult to treat.
What are the treatments?
The treatments for pancreatic cancer are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
If the cancer is detected early, the patient can undergo surgery. Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill the cells. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or control the cancer.
The most commonly used drugs for the treatment of pancreatic cancer are Gemcitabine (Gemzar), Abraxane, 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU), Capecitabine (Xeloda), Oxaliplatin, Cisplatin.
Despite the range of therapies pancreatic cancer is still the 5th (for women) and 4th (for men) cause of cancer related deaths in Ireland.
What do we do?
The NICB specialises in studying cancer cells. In a pancreatic cancer tumour there are many types of cells.
Part of our research effort is trying to grow these cells so that we can further investigate how they respond to therapies.
We also try to look at how these cells talk to each other, figure out if they are protecting each other and determine if we can manipulate this relationship to the benefit of the patients.
One of the reasons why pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat is that it is hard for the drugs to penetrate into the tumour.
Prof Straubinger, is a distinguished expert in the area of drug delivery.
Using our models and his knowledge we are working towards opening up the tumours to allow better drug penetration.
We hope that this may in the future lead to clinical trials. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect. As mentioned already, a large number of patients are diagnosed at the later stages of the disease.
Through our national collaborations, we have acquired a bio-bank of patient relevant material.
Using these samples and transcriptomic and proteomic techniques, we hope to be able to identify patients earlier.
Additionally we hope that the information gained will help us to assist the medical teams in understanding why patients respond to therapy in the way they do.
Collectively we are focused on addressing some of the many challenges of this disease.