Northern Ireland’s pancreatic cancer breakthrough

Scientists at Ulster University have made a major breakthrough in the fight against pancreatic cancer.

Researchers at Ulster University have revealed the potential of a new, minimally invasive treatment that could lead to a five-fold reduction in the size of pancreatic tumours.

The technique described by Ulster University’s Norbrook Chair of Pharmaceutical Science Professor John Callan as “highly novel” involves tiny oxygen filled microbubbles which have a non-active drug attached to the surface. After the microbubbles have been delivered by injection, they are purposely burst in the tumour using harmless soundwaves, releasing the oxygen and non-active drug. The soundwaves activate the drug making it kill the tumour cells.

As Callan explains, this treatment known as Sonodynamic Therapy is, they believe, one of the most promising advances in pancreatic cancer research for decades. “Because we can control exactly where the sound waves go, we can selectively target the tumour and spare healthy tissue making this a highly targeted therapy with reduced side-effects,” he said. “Conventional cancer treatments are often limited by poor oxygen supply which is a characteristic of most solid tumours given their unique blood vessel structure but when the microbubbles burst they provide a temporary boost of oxygen, enhancing the effectiveness of techniques that require oxygen to work.”  

Of the top 21 most common types of cancer in the UK, pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate. The survival rate currently stands at four per cent and hasn’t improved in more than 40 years. Just under 9,000 people are diagnosed with it in the UK every year, it is one of the hardest tumours to detect and treat as many of the symptoms are vague such as simple heartburn, indigestion and unexplained weight loss.

In developing this technology, Ulster University professors John Callan and Tony McHale teamed up with the University of Oxford’s professor Eleanor Stride and one of Northern Ireland’s top pancreatic cancer surgeons, Mark Taylor. For his part, Taylor is excited by the potential offered by this new treatment.

“Pancreatic cancer patients typically present at an advanced stage because the disease tends to have few symptoms until it is well established,” said Taylor. “By the time patients seek medical advice the tumour tends to be large and well established in the abdomen, making surgical intervention and other treatments largely unsuccessful.

“This therapy has the potential to reduce pancreatic tumours to a size which would make surgery an option for a greater number of patients, as well as increasing palliative care options at a very advanced stage. It is a very positive step forward in treating one of the most challenging forms of the disease. We are currently working with the research team at Ulster University to identify the best possible way to move this technology to the clinic in as timely a manner as is possible.”

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