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New treatment for pancreatic cancer using oxygen bubbles under development

Posted by: Research 18 November 2015

Pancreatic Cancer Breakthrough At Ulster University 2

Scientists at Ulster University are currently working on an exciting new strategy for the fight against pancreatic cancer. The team has made a major breakthrough in the early stages of developing a potential new, minimally invasive treatment, activated by harmless sound waves, also known as ultrasound.

Using a new technique, the research team developed tiny oxygen-filled microbubbles which have a non-active drug attached to the surface. In the research, the microbubbles were delivered by injection, and then were purposely burst in the tumour using harmless sound waves, releasing the oxygen and non-active drug. The sound waves also activated the drug, a treatment known as sonodynamic therapy (SDT), making it kill the tumour cells. 

The researchers were able to control exactly where the sound waves went and so could selectively target the tumour and avoid healthy tissue. This resulted in a highly targeted therapy with reduced side-effects. They also showed that the treatment could be combined with existing pancreatic cancer treatments leading to an even greater therapeutic effect. The research showed a five-fold reduction in tumour size, making it a significant breakthrough in the treatment of pancreatic cancer in recent years.

Professor Callan, lead researcher on the work, commented:

“Conventional cancer treatments such as radiotherapy and certain chemotherapies are often limited by poor oxygen supply, which is a characteristic of most solid tumours given their unique blood vessel structure. When our microbubbles 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.”

Top pancreatic cancer surgeon, Mr Mark Taylor, who has been working closely with the Ulster University and Oxford academics on this work, added:

“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.”

The research team are now working together to identify the best possible way to move this technology to the clinic in as timely a manner as is possible.

Leanne Reynolds, Head of Research at 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. While this research is still a long way off changing people’s lives, we welcome any research like this, because there are so few treatment options for pancreatic cancer and the disease has the lowest survival rate of all the 21 common cancers. 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. At the moment, a shocking 1.4 per cent of cancer research funding in the UK goes towards pancreatic cancer, and that has to change.”

The research has previously been published in the Journal of Controlled Release and the team’s latest work has been accepted for publication in the leading drug delivery journal Biomaterials. We will be excited to keep up to date with progress in this promising new area.