Detecting Pancreatic Cancer Earlier

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH) in September 2014, researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute identified what may be an early sign of pancreatic cancer. More study is needed, but increased levels of certain amino acids in the blood (called "branched chain amino acids") may indicate the presence of an early pancreatic tumor.

Researchers report that the analyses of 1,500 blood samples from people taking part in health-tracking studies showed high levels of these amino acids in people who later developed cancer of the pancreas. The hope is that this discovery might some day lead to a new test to detect pancreatic cancer earlier—when it is more treatable.

Developing More Effective Treatments

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

  1. Researchers know that pancreatic cancer usually starts in the pancreatic ducts.
  2. Most patients with pancreatic cancer have a KRAS gene mutation.
  3. Pancreatic cancer is resistant to most available chemotherapy drugs.

Researchers are trying to determine how certain factors (e.g., smoking, pancreatitis, diabetes, genetic mutations, etc.) affect pancreatic cancer risk. They also are working to develop medications that target KRAS mutations and find ways to overcome pancreatic cancer's defense against chemotherapy drugs and improve the delivery of medication directly to cancer cells.

Immune therapy, which has proven successful in treating other cancers including melanoma, is also being studied as a treatment for cancer of the pancreas. Immune, or biologic therapy, may help improve pancreatic cancer patients' own defenses against the disease.

Newer Drugs to Target Pancreatic Cancer

Because conventional chemotherapeutic agents aren't always enough, researchers are searching for newer drugs that more effectively target the genetic and molecular mechanisms that contribute to tumor growth.

Aurothiomalate. In a 2010 study in the journal Cancer Research, researchers found that an oncogene known as protein kinase C-iota (PKCi), a crucial element of colon and lung cancers, is overexpressed in pancreatic cancer as well. They also found a high PKCi level to be linked to poor survival rates. Thus, researchers are investigating a substance called aurothiomalate, which is a PKCi inhibitor, as a treatment for pancreatic cancer.

It is also currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis under the brand name Myochrisine and is now in clinical trials for use in advanced lung and ovarian cancers.

RTA 402. RTA 402 is a targeted anti-inflammatory agent that works by altering biochemical inflammatory pathways and reducing levels of proinflammatory cytokines. Safety and efficacy of this drug are currently being tested in clinical trials, including when used in combination with Gemzar.

Pancreatic Cancer Vaccines

Normally used to program the immune system to prevent infectious disease, vaccines can also be used to combat cancer cells or block molecular mechanisms that encourage tumor growth. Several pancreatic cancer vaccines to be used as treatment are in clinical trials.

GVAX. GVAX works by initiating an immune response to target and kill pancreatic cancer cells, leaving healthy cells alone. Clinical trials are ongoing to test the safety and efficacy of the drug.

VEGFR2-169. VEGFR2-169 blocks vascular endothelial growth factor receptor 2, an agent that encourages tumor blood vessel growth. In a 2010 article in the journal Cancer Science, researchers tested 18 participants with at least one course of treatment combining chemotherapy with Gemzar and VEGFR2-169 and achieved a disease control rate of 67 percent for an average overall survival time of almost nine months.

Other similar vaccines combating pancreatic cancer that are currently in clinical trials include the HyperAcute pancreatic cancer vaccine, survivin peptide vaccine, and the KLH-pulsed autologous dendritic cell vaccine.

Lifestyle Factors and Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

Adopting certain lifestyle modifications can help make your treatment more effective, providing you with energy and stamina to fight the disease and improving your quality of life.

Watch your diet. If you are finding it difficult to eat, try to consume many small meals throughout the day consisting mostly of plant-based foods that are appealing and easy to chew, swallow, and digest. You may also want to try liquid products like Ensure to boost your nutritional intake. Try to limit your consumption of high-fat foods and alcohol.

Stay at a healthy weight. Obesity, especially abdominal obesity, is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer (and diabetes, which may also contribute to pancreatic cancer). If you are overweight, take steps to get your weight under control.

Stay physically active. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate activity each day to maintain fitness and improve your energy level and mood. Regular exercise can also improve digestion and stimulate your appetite.

Combat nausea. You can avoid some of the nausea brought on by cancer treatment by eating foods cold instead of creating cooking odors that may make you feel ill. If you cook, you can try using covered pots, boiling bags, or a kitchen fan to help keep odors under control. Using plastic utensils and nonmetal cookware can also help you to deal with changes in taste sensation you may experience after treatment.

Manage your insulin. Consult with your doctor to help manage any insulin imbalances you may have as a result of your disease or treatment, especially if you already have diabetes.

Take enzymes. You can take pancreatic enzymes (amylase, lipase, and trypsin) in tablet form with meals to help deal with digestion problems you may experience as a result of your disease or treatment.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: H. Franklin Herlong, M.D.

Published: 30 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 10 Feb 2015