Can arthritis drug storm the ‘fortress’ of pancreatic cancer?

A repurposed arthritis drug is offering hope in the fight against deadly pancreatic cancer.

About 4000 Australians are diagnosed with the disease each year and only one in 10 will survive beyond five years, Nine News reports. About 90 per cent of those diagnosed will die, often within a few months of diagnosis.

“We clearly need improved treatments to turn these dismal statistics around, and we hope clinical translation of our findings will ultimately increase the number of pancreatic cancer survivors,” said Associate Professor Phoebe Phillips, from the University of NSW, which has developed the potentially revolutionary treatment.

“We will not give up until we improve the quality of life of patients and provide them with an effective treatment.”

UNSW researchers are testing the effects of a drug used for rheumatoid arthritis to combat pancreatic tumours after 10 years of research using mice and tissue samples.

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“Effective treatment of some pancreatic cancers has long been thwarted by cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) – cells that create a protective fibrotic layer around a patient’s tumour,” reports

“Pancreatic cancer has seen minimal improvement in survival for the last four decades and, without immediate action, it is predicted to be the world’s second biggest cancer killer by 2025,” said Dr Phillips, the article’s senior author. “But our latest advance means today I am the most optimistic and hopeful I have been in my career.”

Co-first author Associate Professor Joshua McCarroll said the nanodrug used was “able to penetrate the scar tissue in pancreatic cancer”.

The proposed trial will use an anti-arthritis drug called sulfasalazine.

“It has the potential to improve treatment response and, ultimately, survival of these patients,” said Dr Phillips.

“The researchers say the opportunity to repurpose an existing drug that’s already in the clinic will help them make progress more quickly. The research team hopes to analyse and publish the first set of results of the trial within three years,” the report says.

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The New Daily’s John Elder says that because sulfasalazine “has already proven itself to be safe, an expensive phase I trial isn’t necessary, saving valuable time”.

“And because the drug is off patent – and listed on the PBS – Dr Phillips said patients would be paying about $50 for treatment, instead of many thousands that a new drug ordinarily costs.

“Going straight into a phase II trial is a huge deal,” Dr Phillips said.

“Pancreatic cancer has seen minimal improvement in survival for the last four decades – and without immediate action, it is predicted to be the world’s second biggest cancer killer by 2025.

“We are taking this exciting development all the way from the lab bench through to the clinic with the sole purpose of improving outcomes for patients with pancreatic cancer.”

Medical site called the UNSW research a “dual-cell approach”, which attacks the “castle keep and outer walls” of a pancreatic tumour.

“In addition to the clinical trial, the team now hopes to assess how their approach interferes with the exchange of nutrients between tumour cells and helper cells. They also want to identify the ideal drugs to combine with their therapeutic approach to enhance anti-tumour effects.”

Read more: Game-changing melanoma treatment describes the proposed treatment as “a way to starve pancreatic cancer cells and ‘disable’ the cells that block treatment from working effectively”.

“Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to treat because of the dense scar tissue surrounding tumours – the tissue acts like a fortress that blocks chemotherapy delivery.

“This scar tissue is produced by critical ‘helper cells‘ – also called cancer-associated fibroblasts – which cancer cells recruit to support their growth and spread. Yet, these helper cells have been ignored in current treatment strategies,” Dr Phillips said.

“Our approach hits both the tumour cells and the helper cells, so it’s ideal for overcoming the aggressiveness and drug resistance of the disease.”

She said the “dual cell” therapeutic target, tackling “both the tumour cells and their helpers”, overcame the current limitations of standard chemotherapy.

Do we fund our medical researchers well enough given the breakthroughs they make? Have you benefitted from medical research?

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Written by Will Brodie

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