UU researchers report exciting development in treatment of the most deadly cancer

Professor John Callan explains the “highly novel and targeted” new treatment for pancreatic cancer Professor John Callan explains the “highly novel and targeted” new treatment for pancreatic cancer
By Staff Reporter

Ulster University researchers have developed a new treatment that they believe may increase pancreatic cancer survival rates.

UU researchers are pleased with the results so far of a revolutionary new process which involves injecting tumours with oxygen micro-bubbles coated in a drug which is subsequently activated by ultrasound.

It’s thought that the new technique could lead to a five-fold decrease in tumour size.

While pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer deaths it has the lowest survival rate, with a mere five per cent of sufferers surviving beyond five years after diagnosis. The high mortality rate is attributable to a general lack of early symptoms meaning that patients often present in the late stage of the condition. Globally, over 200,000 people die from pancreatic cancer each year.

Norbrook Chair of Pharmaceutical Science at UU, Professor John Callan, said: “In what is a highly novel and targeted technique, our team has developed tiny oxygen-filled micro-bubbles which have a non-active drug attached to the surface.

“After the micro-bubbles have been delivered by injection, they are purposely burst in the tumour using harmless soundwaves, releasing the oxygen and non-active drug. These soundwaves also activate the drug, a treatment known as sonodynamic therapy, making it kill the tumour cells.

“Because we can control exactly where the soundwaves go, we can selectively target the tumour and spare healthy tissue, making this a highly targeted therapy with reduced side-effects. We have also shown that our treatment can be combined with existing pancreatic cancer treatments leading to an even greater therapeutic effect.”

Professor Callan said traditional cancer treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy are often hampered by a restricted oxygen supply to the cancer-affected area and the new treatment is effective in overcoming this obstacle.

“When our micro-bubbles burst, they provide a temporary boost in the amount of oxygen available in the tumour, enhancing the effectiveness of techniques that require oxygen to work,” he added.

Pancreatic cancer surgeon Mark Taylor said the new technique offers the chance of both improved surgery interventions and enhanced palliative care for patients.

“Pancreatic cancer patients typically present at an advanced stage because the disease tends to have few symptoms until it is well established,” he said.

“By the time patients seek medical advice the tumour tends to be large and well established in the abdomen, making surgical intervention and other treatments largely unsuccessful.

“This therapy has the potential to reduce pancreatic tumours to a size which would make surgery an option for a greater number of patients, as well as increasing palliative care options at the very advanced stage. It is a very positive step forward in treating one of the most challenging forms of the disease. We are currently working with the research team at Ulster University to identify the best possible way to move this technology to the clinic in as timely a manner as is possible.”

Leanne Reynolds of Pancreatic Cancer UK said: “We are excited to hear about this interesting research, which could lead to a breakthrough in treatments for pancreatic cancer, and potentially longer lives for thousands of people across the UK.

“Just five per cent of people in Northern Ireland survive for five years or more after diagnosis. That’s why all research funders must invest more into pancreatic cancer, so we are doing everything we can to improve treatments and survival rates for this dreadful disease. We are determined to play our part, and announced our own research investment of over £1 million into treatments at the start November, which is also pancreatic cancer awareness month.”