Pancreatic cancer is not common (it kills 1,950 women a year in Canada), but ‘it’s the deadliest,’ says Dr. Mark Walsh, surgical director of liver transplantation for the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. It’s not usually detected until it’s too late to cure; the first signs may be abdominal pain and weight loss, but by then the cancer has usually spread to other organs.
The percentage of people who are disease-free’usually after a combination of surgery and chemotherapy’is between five and seven percent five years after diagnosis. Walsh and other surgeons are performing increasingly aggressive surgeries that remove more of the cancer. Studies of a new therapy called directed radiation, used after surgery, are being led by Dr. Mark Callery at Harvard.
A small percentage of people with pancreatic cancer have a hereditary type called familial pancreatic cancer. The prognosis is better for them because they are usually screened for early signs of the disease.
In a bold new study, a team of German scientists injected streptococcal bacteria into mice that had been implanted with human pancreatic cancer. The tumours either shrank or died. It’s the first study to show the immune system was triggered by live bacteria, which it recognized as alien and then went to work attacking the tumours. ‘This is very promising but also experimental,’ says Dr. Michael Linnebacher, one of the researchers at the University of Rostock. Adds Walsh, ‘Going from mice to human beings with anti-cancer treatments could take 10 to 15 years.’
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