Study success hints at pancreatic cancer immunotherapy promise

In collaboration with the Press Association

US laboratory study has suggested that a specialised form of immunotherapy could prove effective in patients with pancreatic cancer.

The researchers now plan to move to trials in patients, after the technique led to an almost 80 per cent increase in survival in mice given the treatment.The researchers, based at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, found treatment was effective in mice even when used without radiation or chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells. The research team - led by Dr Sunil Hingorani and Dr Phil Greenberg - tested a specialised form of it on mice that had been genetically engineered to grow tumours similar to those found in people with pancreatic cancer.

The therapy used T cells - immune cells that combat disease - which had been primed to recognise and attack cells carrying a protein called mesothelin. The protein is overproduced by the vast majority of pancreatic tumours.

Researchers say the T cells, administered via the bloodstream, managed to get into the animals’ tumours and begin attacking them.

Mice treated with the mesothelin-recognising T cells typically lived for 96 days after their cancer was first detected. That was nearly 80 per cent longer than the 54-day average for animals given T-cells designed to recognise a non-cancerous protein.

The researchers say they have now designed a human version of the mesothelin-directed T cells and are planning a clinical trial to test their safety.

Dr Alan Worsley, senior science communications officer at Cancer Research UK said: “This study suggests that T cells engineered to target a protein common in pancreatic cancer cells could prove an exciting new way to treat patients with this disease. 

“The next step is to test this approach in clinical trials to figure out whether it is both safe and effective. Pancreatic cancer is a disease for which more effective treatments are urgently needed, which is why Cancer Research UK is investing heavily in this field, having recently more than doubled the amount we spend on studying the disease.”


  • Hingorani, S. et al. 'T Cells Engineered Against A Native Antigen Can Surmount Immunologic And Physical Barriers To Treat Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma'. 2015. doi:10.1016/j.ccell.2015.09.022