An experimental treatment has helped reduce a patient’s advanced pancreatic cancer. Since the treatment, the tumor has shrunk and there has been no sign of growth since the one-time therapy in June 2021. The results are reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Pancreatic cancer is very deadly – according to the American Cancer Society, only 11 percent of patients are expected to survive after 5 years
The experimental treatment is a form of immunotherapy that helps to teach the immune system how to kill cancer cells. T cells are important parts of the immune system, helping to kill off infected or diseased cells, but cancer often evades them. Currently, a type of immunotherapy called CAR-T therapy can successfully improve survival against advanced forms of blood cancers. However, it seems that this type of therapy is not as effective for solid tumors, ao scientists are constantly searching for more effective treatments.
The patient (identified as Kathy Wilkes in the Associated Press) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2018 and underwent 8 rounds of chemotherapy, plus radiation and a Whipple procedure that removes part of the pancreas. Unfortunately, within a year, the cancer had spread to her lungs.
Wilkes then did some more research (as the only suggestion from her specialists was more chemotherapy) and discovered a case report published in 2016. It detailed a patient with advanced colon cancer who received an experimental type of gene therapy that targeted the cancer mutation KRAS G12D, an antigen that is found on solid tumors. Some T cells can naturally identify mutant versions of KRAS G12D.
“I thought, 'That is the trial I want.' I knew that that was the trial that was going to save me, save my life. I just had that feeling,” Wilkes told NBC.
Wilkes reached out to the author of the report, Eric Tran. Luckily, despite having different forms of cancer from the original 2016 report, they both had the same genetic mutation – therefore, Wilkes was compatible with this type of treatment.
“This particular mutation is common in tumors that arise from epithelial cells, such as lung, ovarian and pancreatic cancers," Eric Rubin, the New England Journal of Medicine’s editor-in-chief said during a media briefing on Wednesday. “We for the first time have an approach that could allow the treatment of a large variety of tumors beyond the small number of tumors that CAR-T cells can be used in a very specific type of immunotherapy.”
In June 2021, Wilkes's T-cells were altered to carry the receptors important to mutagen antigen recognition. These were then grown en masse and she was given a single infusion of these T-cells. Within a month, the lung tumors had shrunk by 62 percent – and six months later, the tumors had shrunk by 72 percent. After six months, the adapted T-cells were still around, counting for 2.4 percent of her circulating peripheral T-cells.
This is very promising research – however, there should still be caution, as Wilkes was one of two patients that this approach has been conducted. This exact approach also failed in another study. So, more clinical research needs to be conducted on similar genetically comparable patients.
Currently, Wilkes's cancer is stable, but will undergo additional testing and scans in the future.