Posted on Oct 10, 2013 by Michael Loftus
It was unfortunately recently announced that the UK has one of the worst records regarding the treatment and survival rates of pancreatic cancer compared to the rest of the world. However, new research is stepping up to improve these rates and discoveries which could lead to new medication for the disease have recently been made.
A recent review regarding the care of those with the condition suggests that maybe only half of those people who could benefit from life-enhancing surgery to remove tumours actually do receive that treatment in the UK. It also revealed that sufferers may need as many as five consultations with their clinicians before they are finally properly diagnosed, meaning that the cancer is not detected at a stage where there are treatment options available.
Pancreatic cancer, which is a cause of death for some 7,600 people in the UK each year, has the lowest survival rate of any cancer with only three per cent of those diagnosed surviving for five years and the majority not surviving past six months of their initial diagnosis.
A recent study which took account of the views and experience of over 1, 000 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, as well as those responsible for caring for them, found that doctors were concerned that they did not have the information and training that would allow them to quickly identify the condition. Earlier detection could provide more time for initial surgeries which could extend life and enable patients to undergo further treatments.
One of the fundamental problems regarding the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is that it is very difficult to detect and it does not provide any unambiguous signs that it is present. Abdominal pain does occur in some 70% of cases of the development of the cancer but this may begin as just a general discomfort in the stomach or back. Pain may be intermittent at first, but eventually it may appear almost permanent. Another possible symptom is the inflammation of abdominal organs such as the liver or pancreas making them tender to the touch. This experience of pain is a result of the cancer/tumour affecting nerves adjacent to it in the affected organ.
Jaundice is a feature of about half of pancreatic cancer cases. As a consequence of jaundice, the skin and the whites of the eyes appear yellow. Other symptoms are darker urine, pale stools and itching of the skin. However, jaundice can of course be a result of other conditions so it is important for all of the other obvious causes to be investigated before considering any treatment for cancer.
This is a fundamental issue with pancreatic cancer- the symptoms are vague and common to other less grave conditions which need to be ruled out before cancer can be considered. However, the function of the pancreas - along with the liver – means that the chance for cancerous cells originating in the pancreas to be distributed to other organs/ tissue is particularly high and ‘secondary’ cancers may arise before the initial cancer has even been detected.
The permanent aim of cancer treatment is always early detection and treatment is therefore a particular challenge with this form of cancer, which accounts for the low survival rate in general – though not perhaps for the different experience in the UK.
New forms of treatment of the condition are of particular interest. A recent programme of research in the United States has suggested that a drug which is already extensively used in the treatment of high blood pressure may have beneficial effects on tumours associated with pancreatic cancer (and also breast cancer).
The initial results derive at this stage from tests on mice and have indicated that treatment with losartan appears to result in a situation where chemotherapy treatment is more effective than otherwise. The working assumption is that the drug causes greater blood flow to the tumour, enabling chemotherapy to be more effective.
The research team in the US are now looking to move to initial clinical trials with human patients who have an inoperable pancreatic cancer to explore whether or not similar benefits can be obtained and if so, how such a treatment might be refined.