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Drug trial offers first hope for pancreatic cancer patients

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by Cancer Research UK | News

17 March 2004

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Chemotherapy after surgery almost trebles survival rates for pancreatic cancer according to new research published in the New England Journal of Medicine 1.

This form of the disease affects around 7,000 people in the UK each year, yet survival rates are disappointingly low with only two or three per cent of patients still alive after five years.

However in the largest trial ever, Cancer Research UK scientists discovered that nearly 30 per cent of patients who had surgery and chemotherapy lived for five years or more, compared with less than 11 percent of patients who had surgery alone.

Standard treatment should now change, the researchers believe, and all patients who have operable cancer should be considered for chemotherapy after surgery.

The Europe wide study of over 280 patients has been running for 10 years and was coordinated by Cancer Research UK scientists at the University of Liverpool and the University of Birmingham.

Lead Researcher, Professor John Neoptolemos based at the University of Liverpool, explains: “Cancer of the pancreas is associated with particularly poor survival and until now there has been no definitive answer on the best way to treat patients.

“The common belief among doctors is that the disease is untreatable and this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Now we can say unequivocally that treating patients with standard chemotherapy does offer precious extra months of life.”

He adds: “We’re still a long way from curing pancreatic cancer but this research represents a vital first step.

“Now we can build on this success by investigating other, newer drugs and combinations of drugs.”

The study also examined the use of chemoradiation – a treatment which involves giving  chemotherapy at the same time as  radiotherapy. In the past, chemoradiation has been used to treat pancreatic cancer but there has been no conclusive proof that it works.

The new research suggests that chemoradiation is not an effective treatment for pancreatic cancer.

Professor Robert Souhami, Director of Clinical and External Affairs for Cancer Research UK, says: “Pancreatic cancer causes thousands of deaths each year but, until now, the role of chemotherapy and radiation in treatment has not been clear.

“This research shows improved survival with chemotherapy and offers hope that new drug treatments will lead to further advances.”



  1. New England Journal of Medicine350 (12)