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Using the Patient’s Immune System to Treat One of the Deadliest Cancers

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Clinical trials at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) are testing immunotherapy to boost the effects of standard chemotherapy drugs in treating pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is a deadly disease that presents unique challenges for researchers. Clinical trials at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) are testing immunotherapy, medicines that stimulate the patient’s immune system, to boost the effects of standard chemotherapy drugs in treating pancreatic cancer.

According to Ignacio Garrido-Laguna, MD, associate medical director of Phase I clinical trials at HCI, about 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. Although that makes it a rare cancer, it is expected to soon become the second leading cause of cancer deaths.

Pancreatic cancer usually has a poor prognosis. This stems from the characteristics of the disease. It’s almost impossible to diagnose pancreatic cancer in its early stages. Fewer than 20% of patients are diagnosed early enough for surgery to be an option. Symptoms usually don’t show until the cancer has spread and it’s too late to operate.

Like most pancreatic cancer patients, Peter Bondanella was not diagnosed until his cancer had metastasized, or spread, to other organs. Though the information he found on the internet scared him, his treatment at HCI has been a source of comfort and hope. “I’m really impressed with the people here,” he says. “The people here are just wonderful; they know your first name. And I think it is really unusual, because most hospitals feel more like an institution. This is a special place.”

Along with his chemotherapy treatment, Peter has participated in the clinical trial of a new immunotherapy. Recent studies show that cells surrounding pancreatic cancer tumors produce substances that are toxic to T cells, the immune system cells that fight cancer. The immunotherapy prevents the formation of those toxic substances, so T cells survive to help the chemotherapy fight cancer more effectively.

“The chemotherapy we use is a combination of gemcitabine and abraxane. With chemotherapy alone, the response rate on a large randomized trial was roughly 23%,” Dr. Garrido-Laguna says. This means 23% of patients saw a reduction in tumor size of at least 30%.

“In this trial of a smaller number of patients, adding the study drug has produced a response rate of close to 40%,” he adds.

Peter has not had significant negative reactions to the chemotherapy. He has maintained a voracious appetite during his treatment, without nausea or similar side effects that many patients must deal with. For now, Peter says he is committed to “keep going…that’s just the way I am.”

With the right resources and further clinical trials, Dr. Garrido-Laguna and other researchers hope to confirm immunotherapy’s potential to improve the treatments for pancreatic cancer. The rarity of pancreatic cancer makes it difficult to find trial participants. "Across the country, fewer than 5% of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer are enrolled in clinical trials,” he says. “For new, effective therapies to be identified, it is so important that patients participate. That’s where the next treatment breakthrough will be found."

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit