"When people talk about pancreatic cancer it is usually with a negative outlook," said Dr. William Fisher, director of the Elkins Pancreas Center and professor of surgery at BCM. "While there isn't a cure right now, we are not going to give up. Our doctors are focused on trying to find better treatments and putting our energy into that to succeed."
One current research study is testing a new immunotherapy. The goal is to create a "vaccine" that activates a person's immune system to attack the microscopic cancer that might be left behind after a tumor has been surgically removed.
"Patients who have gone through surgery usually have a reoccurrence of the disease," said Fisher. "It is returning because there are microscopic cancer cells left behind that we cannot detect or fully remove."
The "vaccine" works by activating a protein that trains the immune system to launch a vigorous rejection of any remaining pancreatic cancer cells.
"Researchers have created the vaccine from a pancreatic cancer cell that was manipulated to express a protein that is not found in humans. This protein causes the body to reject it," said Fisher. "It is the same principle as the body rejecting foreign objects such as organ transplants, so the vaccine causes the immune system to fight the cancer cells."
Those who have had their cancer removed by surgery and are in stage 1 or 2 of the disease are eligible for the study. For more information on the study and to see if you qualify please call 877-PANC-CTR (877-726-2287).
Support for this trial comes from NewLink Genetics.
"We are in the beginning phase of something very exciting in pancreatic cancer research," said Fisher. "We plan to sequence the genome of pancreatic cancer tumors."
This research is a part of The Cancer Genome Atlas project, a comprehensive and coordinated effort to increase the understanding of the genetics of cancer using genome analysis technologies. Researchers in the Human Genome Sequencing Center at BCM, under the direction of Dr. Richard Gibbs, professor of molecular and human genetics at BCM, have already begun sequencing the breast cancer genome. Plans are in the works to do the same for pancreatic cancer.
"A lot of research focuses on one gene within a tumor. Researchers will alter that gene to see how the tumor responds," Fisher said. "But pancreatic cancer is a very complex disease with different gene mutations found from patient to patient. What this project promises is that we will potentially understand all the mutations associated with the cancer."
Fisher is hopeful that once the pancreatic cancer genome is complete, a patient's tumor can then be biopsied and subjected to a genetic analysis so it can be compared to the vast majority of mutations. Doctors will know exactly what mutations are causing the tumor, and which treatment would be best.
"This will truly be a personalized genomic approach to treating cancer," said Fisher. "It will allow us to take what we've learned from our past and current genetic research to the next level."
Recent Research Breakthroughs
- Dr. Charles Brunicardi, chair of the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery, has discovered that genetic changes in PDX-1, a nuclear transcription factor, causes pancreatic cancer cells to invade other tissues, divide faster, and live longer. He has blocked the production of PDX-1 in pancreatic cancer cells using gene silencing, and this resulted in dramatic tumor regression and improved survival.
- Dr. Shaun Zhang has discovered an oncolytic virus that targets cells with activated Kras. This attenuated virus can be given systemically because it can only infect cells with activated Kras, such a pancreatic cancer cells. Preclinical animal studies have demonstrated safety, dramatic tumor regression, and improved survival.
- Dr. Cathy Yao has discovered that mesothelin is overexpressed in most pancreatic cancers and this leads to enhanced pancreatic cancer cell adhesion, invasion, migration, and tumor progression in a mouse model. Yao is working on the signaling mechanisms through which mesothelin causes pancreatic cancer progression. She is also developing a new mesothelin-based pancreas cancer vaccine using a novel approach with virus-like particles. Cathy has already demonstrated that this therapy will initiate a strong immune response and inhibit pancreas cancer growth in mice.
- Dr. Johnny Chen, vice chair for research, is studying mutations and expression of a gene located in an intron called "XIST." This gene may be important in women who develop pancreatic cancer and inhibition of this gene may stop pancreatic cancer growth.
- Dr. Min Li recently found that a dietary zinc transporter, ZIP4, is substantially overexpressed in human pancreatic cancer, and contributes to pancreatic cancer progression. Silencing of ZIP4 by a small molecule called shRNA inhibited pancreatic cancer growth in animal models and increased the survival rate. These studies, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggest a new therapeutic strategy whereby ZIP4 is targeted to control pancreatic cancer growth.