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Scientists crack conundrum of how combined chemotherapy destroys pancreatic cancer cells

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by Cancer Research UK | News

28 February 2012

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Cancer Research UK scientists have discovered how a combination of two chemotherapy drugs – already showing promise in clinical trials – destroys pancreatic cancer cells, according to research published in Cancer Discovery* today (Tuesday).  

The team at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute showed that combining the chemotherapy treatments ABRAXANE® (nab®-paclitaxel) and gemcitabine in mouse pancreatic cells increased the amount of active, or ‘switched on,’ gemcitabine.

The research showed that nab-paclitaxel has a dual role – as well as killing cancer cells – it also produces molecules that block an enzyme called cytidine deaminase, (CDA) which normally destroys the drug gemcitabine.  

The levels of gemcitabine were increased in the pancreatic tumours, making this drug more effective at destroying the cancer cells.

Initial clinical trials have shown this drug combination could be used to treat tumours in patients but understanding more about how these drugs work together will help researchers make this approach even more effective.  

Study author, Professor David Tuveson, group leader at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute, said; “Previously scientists faced a real conundrum. They knew that one plus one equalled much more than two but they couldn’t fathom out the reasons why these drugs worked so well together.

“Understanding that adding nab-paclitaxel to the mix can boost the effects of gemcitabine suggests other drugs might also be used in combination treatments for pancreatic and other cancers.”

Professor of cancer therapeutics, Duncan Jodrell, at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute, said: “Early clinical trials combining these two drugs have already shown promise and we’re looking forward to the results of larger Phase III studies with great interest.”  

More than 8,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year and it is the fifth most common cause of cancer death in the UK.

Dr Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said; “This important research brings fresh hope for new ways to treat pancreatic cancer in the future using drugs that are already at our fingertips.

“Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to treat successfully because by the time the disease is detected it is very often quite advanced.  Survival from this disease is still poor, so new treatment approaches, are urgently needed and Cancer Research UK is dedicated to improving the outlook for patients.

“We look forward to building on these discoveries to improve survival from this disease in the future.”


For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

ABRAXANE (nab-paclitaxel) potentiates gemcitabine activity by reducing cytidine deaminase levels in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer. Cancer Discovery. Frese et al.