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Old drug offers new hope of tailored pancreatic cancer treatment

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A failed pancreatic cancer treatment could be resurrected as a personalised medicine aimed at one in five patients with the disease, research suggests.

Previous trials showed that the drug rapamycin was ineffective as a general therapy for pancreatic cancer.

But new evidence suggests it might work against a particular type of tumour caused by a fault in the PTEN gene, which influences cell growth.

“It’s a crucial step forward in developing new treatments for this devastating disease”

Jennifer Morton

When rapamycin was given to mice with PTEN-defective pancreatic tumours, it stopped cancer cells from spreading. In some cases, the drug also caused tumours to shrink.

An analysis of human pancreatic tumour samples found that around one in five had the defective gene, suggesting that rapamycin might help a substantial number of patients.

Lead researcher Dr Jennifer Morton, from the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute at the University of Glasgow, said: “This is incredibly important research showing for the first time that there’s potential to tailor treatment to pancreatic cancer patients based on differences in their tumour’s genetic fingerprint.

“Although it’s at a very early stage, it’s the first time we’ve been able to pinpoint a genetic fault in pancreatic cancers and match it up with a specific drug,” she said.

“While more research is needed to see if this approach could benefit patients, it’s a crucial step forward in developing new treatments for this devastating disease which has seen no survival improvements since the 70s,” she added.

Each year 8,800 people develop pancreatic cancer in the UK. The disease is often diagnosed late and is especially deadly. Just over 3% of newly diagnosed patients will survive for five years or more.

The new research was published earlier this year in the journal Gut.

Dr Kat Arney, science communications manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “This is a promising step towards being able to understand how pancreatic tumours differ from each other and how we can personalise treatments to them.

“It’s a challenging disease where little progress has been made,” she said. “Over the next few years we plan to more than double the amount we spend on pancreatic cancer research.”

Rapamycin, derived from a type of bacteria, is an immunosuppressant used to prevent the rejection of organ transplants.

It blocks a protein called “mammalian target of rapamycin” (mTOR) which helps control cell growth.

Research suggests that tumours caused by a faulty PTEN gene may be dependent on mTOR.


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