Major cancer breakthrough at South Lake Union’s Fred Hutchinson

Breakthrough research being done at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center may give doctors their best chance yet of treating an especially deadly cancer.

About 45,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and 40,000 will die. The cancer is resistant to almost all chemotherapies and, because it’s usually caught in the late stages, it generally takes its victims in a matter of months.

To treat any cancer, scientists create a chemotherapy in the lab. Once it’s proven effective there and in animals, doctors use it to kill human cancer cells.

The problem was that the standard approach wasn’t working with the pancreas. Unlike most other cases, the drugs that killed pancreatic cancer in the petri dish didn’t kill it in humans.

“One of the things that’s always been confusing is that chemotherapy for this cancer in particular has been extremely ineffective, and we’ve never quite understood why,” said Dr. Sunil Hingorani.

Hingorani has made fighting pancreatic cancer his life. He’s attacked the cancer with a vengeance ever since it killed his first patient — his father.

“I actually had a decision to make after my father passed away from this disease,” he said. “Either, never see another pancreas cancer patient again and only take care of the other cancers, or if I was going to tackle this disease then I was going to devote 100 percent of my time to it.”

He chose the latter, and now his team at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has unlocked the mystery of why the drugs do not reach the center of the tumor.

They discovered that pancreas tumors create an intense inflammatory reaction.

“So there are cells that come in and lay down collagen and other material that’s like a scar,” said Hingorani said.

The collagen or scar tissue creates a fortress around the tumor. Doctors thought that was a good thing — keeping the cancer from spreading — but it turns out it actually kept the chemo from reaching the tumor.

So scientists had to find a way to penetrate the shield, and researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have discovered an enzyme that could do just that.

First, they tried it in mice.

“And 24 hours later I put our pressure probe in and saw the pressure go from through the roof down to what we find in the normal pancreas, after just one dose,” said Dr. Paolo Provenzano.

The breakthrough could be end up helping get chemotherapy all the way into the tumor to eradicate the cancer.

Clinical trials are already underway.

Thanks to Komo for this story

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