When someone is diagnosed with exocrine pancreatic cancer, the treatment options are not very promising. In general, most patients die within a year of diagnosis because that type of cancer is hard to detect early, and it is already pretty advanced when treatment starts. Surgery to remove the tumor offers the greatest potential for survival, but in the majority of cases this is not an option. Pancreatic cancer cells are also very difficult to reach with chemotherapy and radiation.
Current research is focusing on methods that could permit early detection of pancreatic cancer, therefore improving the chances of people responding to the treatments that are available. It is also focusing on treatment options that target exocrine pancreatic cells better.
As far as early detection, the tools currently available are a special kind of imaging, called endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) that combines endoscopy and ultrasound to obtain a high quality ultrasound image of the organ. There are also tests available that detect genetic changes in pancreatic cancer pre-cancerous cells in samples of pancreatic juice. These test are options for people with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer, but in general not recommended for people with an average risk who are not showing any symptoms. The exciting news in this field, is that scientists at the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at John Hopkins University, are working on developing a test that can detect “circulating tumor DNA” (ctDNA), this is mutant DNA that the tumor sheds in the blood. So in the near future there might be a blood test available for pancreatic cancer.
As far as treatment, there are different lines of ongoing research focusing on determining the best combination of treatments that are effective. There is a pilot study sponsored by the Heidelberg University in Germany, that is evaluating the effectiveness of broccoli sprout extracts in the treatment of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDA) in people with advanced inoperable cancer under palliative chemotherapy. The trial is expected to transfer promising experimental and epidemiological data into a clinical pilot study with promising results.
There are also exciting news, as far as technology to deliver treatment into the cells. Researchers at Rice University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center are developing a short, customized carbon nanotube that could potentially deliver drugs to pancreatic cancer cells and destroy them from within. These nanotubes may be able to get in the cancerous cells’ nuclei, where the drugs can be released through sonication (by shaking them). This could offer a better treatment option for people whose tumors resist standard chemotherapy.
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