The results of a new clinical trial testing the success of a vaccine that targets pancreatic cancer is giving researchers hope that the treatment might be ready for wide distribution within the next couple years.
During a Phase II trial, 62 percent of patients who used the newly-developed vaccine in combination with traditional treatments were cancer free for at least a year. The year-long survival rate was 86 percent, according to Jeffrey Hardacre, a doctor at the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio and lead author of the study.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of the disease, with a long-term survival rate of just 4 percent. The disease has been estimated to cause about 6 percent of cancer deaths in the United States. Over the past several years, actor Patrick Swayze and Apple CEO Steve Jobs have died from the disease.
"I don't think it's going to be a cure for pancreatic cancer, but it could significantly prolong a patient's survival," Hardacre says. "We're attacking pancreatic cancer from multiple vantage points."
Unlike preventative vaccines, the pancreatic cancer vaccine is given to patients after they have already been diagnosed with the disease. The vaccine is made up of two types of human pancreatic cancer cells, which the patient's body recognizes as foreign, abnormal cells. "Theoretically, this primes a patient's immune system into trying to fight his or her own pancreatic cancer," Hardacre says.
The team has been working on the vaccine for several years and has already started Phase III trials—the last set of trials before a drug is approved for general use, something Hardacre says could happen within the next several years.
He says the Phase II test proved that the vaccine is "very safe" in humans and results were positive enough to "prompt a significant investment of money and time for a Phase III trial that will give us a definitive answer."
Pancreatic cancer is so deadly because it is generally hard to detect and, in many cases, has already spread by the time it's diagnosed. It's also notoriously hard to treat with chemotherapy and radiation therapies.
Researchers are looking into using similar vaccines to treat melanoma and lung cancer.
"[Cancer vaccines] is a field that's a little bit in its infancy," Hardacre says. "But people are increasingly recognizing that our immune system may be our friend in fighting these cancers."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org