With a five-year survival rate of only six percent, pancreatic cancer is by far the deadliest type of cancer. It is highly resistant to traditional anti-cancer therapies, including chemotherapies, targeted therapies, and radiation. New strategies and approaches to treating pancreatic cancer are critically needed.
In 2011, the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) and the Lustgarten Foundation partnered to explore ways that immunotherapy—the approach to cancer treatment that CRI has pioneered for 60 years—could impact pancreatic cancer treatment. By leveraging the Lustgarten Foundation’s commitment to pancreatic cancer research with CRI’s mission to bring new immunotherapies to patients, the two organizations aimed to achieve greater impact in advancing pancreatic cancer treatment than either could alone. Begun with a day-long Think Tank on the Immunotherapy of Pancreatic Cancer co-organized by the two organizations in May 2011, the partnership grew to include co-developing and co-funding a new grant initiative to test immune-based approaches as a therapeutic option for pancreatic cancer patients.
As a result of these efforts, this year CRI and the Lustgarten Foundation will launch a phase I trial to test an innovative approach that involves genetically modifying patients’ immune cells to recognize and kill pancreatic cancer cells. The clinical trial, which will take place at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, will be led by Carl June, M.D., a world-recognized leader in this new approach to cancer treatment. In a prior study of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) who had become resistant to chemotherapy, Dr. June achieved remissions in all 3 patients enrolled, including 2 complete, prolonged regressions lasting more than a year. He has also achieved life-saving results in pediatric patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Based on results from preclinical research, he hypothesized that this approach could also be promising for pancreatic cancer. In a preliminary study involving one patient with pancreatic cancer who was resistant to chemotherapy, Dr. June showed that the approach is safe and was successful in decreasing the patient’s tumor burden at multiple disease sites, including a complete regression of one metastasis. With support from CRI and the Lustgarten Foundation, Dr. June will now expand the study and test the approach in 10 patients to determine if these effects can be replicated among a larger group of patients. In addition to offering potentially life-saving treatment to 10 pancreatic cancer patients over the next year, these studies could lay the groundwork for additional trials that could help this approach become a standard treatment option for pancreatic cancer.