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Researchers set to take down ‘shield’ pancreatic cancer puts up against immunotherapy treatment

Posted by: Research 8 November 2016

Today (Tuesday 8th November), research has been published suggesting that a weight loss condition in people with pancreatic cancer is helping the disease put up a ‘shield’ against immunotherapy, a treatment which uses the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.

It is now hoped that the findings will be taken forward and a drug developed which would ‘switch off’ a mechanism involved in the weight loss condition, which is called cachexia. This could then protect the immune systems of people with pancreatic cancer and therefore make immunotherapy more effective as a treatment for the disease.

The study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism and led by researchers at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, found that in mice with pancreatic cancer, a protein is released which causes the symptoms of cachexia. This then creates a hormonal response in the body which suppresses the immune system, therefore stopping immunotherapies working well.

Dr Tobias Janowitz, part of the research team, is hopeful that the work could lead to strategies to protect the patient's immune system and help make effective immunotherapy a reality for more patients. Commenting on the work, he added: "Cancer immunotherapy might completely transform how we treat cancer in the future - if we can make it work for more patients."

Leanne Reynolds, Head of Research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: “This exciting research could ultimately lead to immunotherapy being more effective for many more people with pancreatic cancer, therefore allowing them to live for longer. If we can find a way to ‘switch off’ the mechanism behind cancer cachexia, we could protect patients’ immune systems, and take down the shield that pancreatic cancer puts up against immunotherapy.

“Pancreatic cancer is a disease with very few treatment options, so promising research like this, which looks at how to improve existing ones, simply must be followed up as a priority. Just five per cent of people with pancreatic cancer live for five years or more after diagnosis. We must do everything we can to give people the best possible chance of having more precious time with their families.”

Pancreatic Cancer UK has provided a grant of £75,000 through its Research Innovation Fund to a study at Barts Cancer Institute into developing new ways of making immunotherapy more effective as a treatment.