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Pancreatic cancer treatments show promise in studies, Penn reports

University of Pennsylvania researchers are reporting early but encouraging results from two small ongoing studies of experimental treatments for metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is a fearsome malignancy that has long defied efforts to find effective treatments. Only 9 percent of patients survive five years after diagnosis. The disease is now the nation’s third leading cancer killer even though it causes only 3 percent of all new cancer cases. This year, about 56,700 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and 45,700 will die of it.

For one study, funded by the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, researchers at Penn and seven other centers combined two standard chemotherapies with varying doses of an experimental antibody, called APX005M, being developed by Apexigen. Half the patients also received Opdivo, a “checkpoint inhibitor” drug that boosts the immune response by cutting an immune system brake. Although checkpoint inhibitors have dramatically improved survival in many solid tumor cancers, they have not worked so far in pancreatic cancer.

The experimental antibody, which binds to a particular cell surface receptor, is designed to reverse the suppression of the immune system that occurs in all cancers, but especially pancreatic. In theory, the antibody complements Opdivo’s cut-the-brakes mechanism by pressing on the accelerator, explained Penn hematologist-oncologist Mark O’Hara, the study’s co-leader.

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