For years pancreatic cancer has been looked at as a death sentence. While the overall survival rates are still frightening to hear, doctors are excited about the future, and the new treatments still in clinical trials.
2013 was a challenging year for Glen Thorsen. Just months after his daughter passed away, he was given more devastating news, a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
"Both parents had cancer and my daughter also had cancer. So there’s a lot of cancer in the family," Thorsen said.
Thorsen knew he was going to fight this. He was ready to start treatment right away.
“I wanted to get it taken care of as soon as possible,” Thorsen said.
He had surgery and would go on to have chemo and radiation as well. He would eventually drive from New Jersey to Baltimore once a month for a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins.
“It was a new drug, azacitidine drug, and it was a trial where they were trying to look at the genetics,” he said.
“On the clinical trial he’s enrolled on with me he did all of his standard treatment and then went on a trial of an epigenetic drug for a year, and now over two years out he’s still free of cancer," Dr. Nilofer Azad said.
Azad is an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. She says epigenetic therapy is just one of the areas being explored right now. She says this is the abnormal parts of how genes function in cancer and being able to reverse that with drugs.
Immunotherapy is also being studied.
"There are many ways you can give it. There are anti-cancer vaccines and then there are drugs that actually stimulate your body’s immune system against the cancer cells,” Azad said. "So cancer lives in our bodies but the immune cells that are in our body aren’t recognizing they should be attacking it. So we have drugs that can now turn on your body’s immune cells against the cancer.”
Azad continued, saying, “In pancreatic cancer, it’s still in clinical trials but there have been effective therapies across many different cancer types and we’re trying to find ways to make it work for our pancreatic cancer patients.”
There are many clinical trials out there but Azad said in terms of adult cancer patients, only about 10 to 20 percent enroll in one.
She is encouraging more people diagnosed to look into clinical trials.
“Every treatment that is standard today was once a part of a clinical trial," Azad said.
“I look at it in the sense of a trial being something that will be helping others that follow," Thorsen said.
In the next five years, Azad, believes there will be a new treatment or group of treatments for pancreatic cancer different than traditional chemotherapy.
This however means more research, which she says is currently in dire need of continued investment in funding, from both the government and private resources.