Personal Health

New Drug Prolongs Lives of Pancreatic Cancer Patients by Reawakening Immune System

And the best part is the drug appears to have no side effects.

Photo Credit: jovan vitanovski / shutterstock.com

The fight against cancer was emboldened recently thanks to a new drug that attempts to extend the lives of those suffering from metastatic pancreatic cancer—one of the most severe forms of the disease—by rebooting the immune system. A clinical study of the drug, named IMM-101, has been described as “groundbreaking” reports the Guardian.

Metastatic pancreatic cancer spreads throughout the body typically killing people within a few months. Patients that were treated with chemotherapy alongside IMM-101, however, were able to fight off the disease for longer than usual and most significantly unlike other immunotherapy treatments, did so without suffering any side-effects.

“That’s never been seen before,” said Dr. Angus Dalgleish, a lead researcher of the study and professor of oncology at St George’s University of London, who was interviewed by the Guardian.  “You always add toxicity and misery in my experience with each additional thing you put in,” he said.

Dalgleish’s research found that not to be the case with IMM-101. Instead, the patients treated with IMM-101—a relatively small trial group of 110 people—actually felt better than those solely undergoing chemotherapy. Among the 85% of the trial patients suffering from the metastatic form of the disease, those treated with standard chemotherapy drug survived “for a median of 4.4 months,” while additional IMM-101 recipients “survived for seven months” on average. Several other patients treated with IMM-101 lived “for more than a year and one died after nearly three years.” These results were published in the British Journal of Cancer.

“To me it’s really exciting,” said Dalgleish. “This is the first time we have got an immunotherapy that is a really good candidate to help control pancreatic cancer, which is one of the biggest killing diseases. Its incidence nearly matches its mortality. It is absolutely staggering.”

Part of the severity of this condition is due to the fact that pancreatic tumors are generally unaffected by immunotherapy drugs. The key to IMM-101’s relative success is its ability to reactivate the immune system, allowing the chemotherapy to attack the tumors that were previously shielded from the effects of the drug. Or, as Dalgleish put it, “like depth-charging the immune system which has been sent to sleep.”

Dalgleish had also previously tested IMM-101 among skin cancer patients with equally encouraging results. “In my melanoma patients in particular, patients have shown greatly increased survival rates and enjoy a much better quality of life. In some patients I’ve actually seen the cancer disappearing altogether,” he said.

But despite these encouraging results, further tests are required to reach more significant and conclusive findings on the drug. Dr Justine Alford, a senior science information officer for Cancer Research UK, explained why further in her interview with the Guardian. She said,

“While the results of this early trial didn’t show whether combining the immunotherapy drug with standard chemotherapy actually improved survival, they showed the combination treatment was safe and might help some patients. Further research with more patients is needed to develop therapies that can improve survival. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat and survival still remains low, which is why new treatments are urgently needed.”

A bigger trial solely with patients suffering from metastatic pancreatic cancer is now in the works.

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Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.