Health & Wellness

Breakthroughs in Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

Nov. 10, 2023

Pancreatic cancer, a formidable adversary in the oncology community, has long been characterized by daunting survival statistics.

With survival rates hovering around a somber 10% five years post-diagnosis, the call for innovative and effective pancreatic cancer treatment has never been more critical. The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center stands at the forefront of this battle, armed with a team of dedicated physicians and researchers determined to turn the tide against this deadly disease.

During Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, we shine a light on the groundbreaking work spearheaded by these experts. Their relentless pursuit of pancreatic cancer treatment breakthroughs offers a beacon of hope to patients facing a path historically shadowed by challenging outcomes. In the subsequent sections, we'll delve into the transformative research and clinical advances emerging from the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center, heralding a new era of possibilities for pancreatic cancer patients.

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Breakthroughs from the Scientists and Doctors that are Searching for the Cure

In the quest to conquer one of the most aggressive cancers, the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center has emerged as a hub of innovation. The center's specialists are not just treating pancreatic cancer; they're redefining the approach with groundbreaking therapies designed to outmaneuver the disease at every turn. This article aims to unfold the latest advances and explore how they're rewriting the narrative of pancreatic cancer treatment.

Understanding Pancreatic Cancer Cells

To appreciate the significance of the latest breakthroughs, one must first understand the adversary. Pancreatic cancer arises when malignant cells form in the tissues of the pancreas, an organ pivotal to our digestive and endocrine systems. Predominantly, pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, marked by a mutation in the KRAS gene—a mutation found in approximately 95% of cases. These cancer cells are notoriously resilient, often evading the grasp of conventional therapies, and paving the way for disease progression that is stealthy and rapid.

The Challenge of Treating Pancreatic Cancers

The resilience of pancreatic cancer lies in its inherent ability to resist treatment. Pancreatic tumors are adept at constructing a protective tumor microenvironment that thwarts many would-be effective therapies. This barrier not only shelters the cancer cells but also manipulates the patient's immune system, preventing it from launching a powerful immune response against the malignancy. Hence, there is a dire need for treatments that can break through this fortress and attack pancreatic cancer cells with precision.

The Evolution of Treatment for Advanced Pancreatic Cancer

In recent years, treatment paradigms for advanced pancreatic cancer have evolved significantly. Previously, patients with advanced stages of the disease had limited options, but now, through the use of next-generation sequencing, oncologists can better understand the tumor cells' genetic profile, leading to more personalized and effective treatments. As we continue to treat pancreatic cancer, particularly in its advanced stages, the application of targeted therapies and experimental treatments, like personalized mRNA vaccines, are showing potential not only to halt cell growth but to provoke a strong immune response from powerful immune cells.

Neoadjuvant Therapy: A Promising Start

Neoadjuvant therapy represents a seismic shift in the treatment landscape. This approach, combining chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy before surgery, is designed to shrink pancreatic tumors, thereby increasing the likelihood of complete surgical removal. Led by Dr. Davendra Sohal and Dr. Syed A. Ahmad, the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center's involvement in national clinical trials has been pivotal in the broader adoption of this pre-surgery strategy, improving outcomes for patients treated with this regimen.

Expanding the Scope of Pancreatic Cancer Trials

Looking ahead, future clinical trials at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center will focus on expanding treatment options at the early stages of pancreatic adenocarcinoma and for patients with pancreatic cancer presenting with metastatic disease.

Immunotherapy: Training the Immune System

Immunotherapy has revolutionized cancer treatment, harnessing the body's immune system to target and destroy cancer cells. However, pancreatic cancer has proven elusive to these advances. The typically unresponsive nature of pancreatic cancer to immunotherapy stems from its adeptness at evading immune detection, underscoring a pressing need for novel approaches.

The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center is at the vanguard, testing groundbreaking methods in ongoing clinical trials. Under the guidance of experts like Dr. Davendra Sohal, these trials are exploring the efficacy of novel immunotherapy drugs that release the brakes on immune cells, allowing them to attack pancreatic cancer cells vigorously.

Immunotherapy and T Cells: A New Frontier

T cells, a type of lymphocyte, are essential components of the immune system and are at the forefront of immunotherapy research. By harnessing the power of T cells and directing them toward pancreatic cancer cells, scientists at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center aim to effectively treat even metastatic pancreatic cancer, which has spread beyond the initial tumor site.

Targeted Therapies: The Precision Approach

The foray into targeted therapies has ushered in a new chapter in the fight against pancreatic cancer. These therapies zoom in on specific molecular and genetic aberrations that fuel the growth of cancer cells. A case in point is the targeting of the KRAS pathway, a common thread in the fabric of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. The concerted efforts of Dr. Sohal, alongside Dr. Andrew Waters and Dr. Krushna Patra, are spearheading this precision medicine frontier. Through NIH and Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-funded research, they're piecing together the complex puzzle of KRAS mutations and piloting clinical trials that test targeted therapies for patients harboring these mutations.

The Hope of Personalized Medicine

In the landscape of pancreatic cancer treatment, personalized medicine is not a distant dream—it's an actionable reality. The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center is at the epicenter of this personalized approach, conducting a Phase II clinical trial that examines therapies targeting the AKT molecule, an emerging player in cancer cell survival. Dr. Sohal's leadership in this FDA-funded trial is examining the impact of a drug combination that has demonstrated potential in other cancers, such as uterine and lung. This tailored approach not only amplifies the attack on pancreatic cancer cells but also offers a beacon of hope for patients with advanced-stage disease.

Personalized Approaches for Pancreatic Tumor Treatment

As we move into more personalized care, adult patients with pancreatic cancer are experiencing the benefits of tailored treatments. Molecular oncology is playing a critical role in this shift, with therapies being designed to address the unique molecular profiles of individuals' pancreatic tumors. This personalized approach is extending into the realm of mRNA vaccines, which are being custom designed to elicit a cell response specific to the tumor cells found in a patient, potentially leading to early detection and treatment in locally advanced cases.

Advancements in Pancreatic NETs Treatment

While pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are rarer and typically more treatable than the common form of pancreatic cancer, the shadow of recurrence looms large for patients post-surgery. The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center is pioneering new protocols that extend beyond mere monitoring. Spearheaded by Co-Director Dr. Syed Ahmad, clinical trials are scrutinizing the use of chemotherapy drugs to reduce the risk of cancer returning in high-risk patients. These trials build on earlier studies that have shown promise, potentially marking a significant advance in NETs treatment.

Precision Medicine in Action

The use of targeted therapy is particularly relevant for solid tumors, such as those found in pancreatic adenocarcinoma. By zeroing in on specific markers on tumor cells, targeted therapies can effectively treat these malignancies with less harm to normal cells. This precision medicine approach is key to managing early-stage pancreatic cancer and is a cornerstone of the personalized vaccines being developed. The primary endpoint for many of these therapies is to see a partial response, which can be a significant step toward achieving a complete response in the future.

The Role of Clinical Trials in Pancreatic Cancer Breakthroughs

Clinical trials are the lifeblood of medical advancements, particularly in pancreatic cancer. These studies, many supported by the National Cancer Institute, provide a platform for testing new treatments and are a testament to the relentless pursuit of progress. The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center encourages patients to participate in clinical trials, offering access to cutting-edge treatments and the chance to contribute to the broader fight against this formidable disease. For those interested in joining the front lines of this battle, information about open clinical trials is readily available through the center.

Living Proof: Stories of Hope and Survival

Amid the statistics and scientific jargon, the personal stories of those touched by pancreatic cancer resonate the loudest. Robin Wright, a patient diagnosed in late 2021 and now a year past her treatment's conclusion stands as a testament to the progress made. Her treatment included neoadjuvant therapy—a testament to the advancements the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center is championing. Robin's resolve, echoing the sentiment, "I am not going to be a statistic," underscores the human element of the fight against pancreatic cancer and the tangible hope these breakthroughs provide.

Charting the Course for Future Research

The stories of eight patients who are living beyond their expected prognosis underscore the need for more research to improve the median overall survival (median OS) and progression-free survival (median PFS) for all patients with pancreatic cancer. The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center is committed to this goal, with a keen focus on early detection and improving outcomes through both standard treatment protocols and the investigation of next-generation sequencing as a tool to customize therapy.

What Should Pancreatic Cancer Patients Consider?

In the evolving landscape of pancreatic cancer treatment, patients have more options than ever before. The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center is a prime resource for those seeking guidance on navigating these new waters. With a team of experts ready to offer insights and a plethora of clinical trials open for enrollment, the center is a beacon for those searching for answers in the fight against one of the most deadly cancers.


The journey toward overcoming pancreatic cancer is fraught with challenges. Still, the path is now illuminated by the promise of new treatments and the tenacity of the researchers and patients who are paving the way. As we continue to witness breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer treatment from the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center, there is a burgeoning sense of optimism that we can change the narrative of this disease, offering not just hope, but real, tangible progress in the quest for a cure.