Bursts of electricity could be used in treatment of pancreatic cancer

Cork research centre hopeful clinical trial will pave way for pioneering technique

Researchers in Cork, who cured aggressive cancers in mice by hitting tumours with bursts of electricity, are to begin testing the radical

treatment on 30 patients with advanced malignant skin cancers. The new technique, which will be presented today at a University College Cork conference, could be used to treat many types of cancer.

Dr Declan Soden, of the Cork Cancer Research Centre (CCRC), said a short burst of electricity on a tumour made it "more porous" and more likely to absorb drugs that were able to kill it off.

“We have been using this approach to treat primarily skin-based tumours, such as malignant melanoma, on about 400 patients over the past nine or 10 years, and it’s been very successful,” he told The Irish Times.

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Dr Soden added that CCRC researchers had recently developed probes which allowed them to deliver electroporation, either by nonsurgical endoscopy down the digestive tract or by using keyhole surgery through the stomach wall to target abdominal tumours, such as pancreatic cancer.

“We are using electricity to open the door to make the tumour more porous to facilitate the introduction of the drug into the tumour in a more targeted manner,” he said.

Best chance

Dr Soden said patients who had the strongest immune cell presence in their tumour at the time of surgery were generally found to have the best chance of surviving the disease, so drugs which stimulated the immune system had an important role to play.

“The assumption is that the immune system is in some way controlling the disease,” he said. “It’s like a tug of war between the immune system and the cancer, and the development of new immunotherapy drugs has helped tilt the balance in favour of the immune response to the cancer.”

The team at CCRC, which is a collaboration between University College Cork and Cork University Hospital, has been able to cure aggressive advanced cancers in mice, and if the trials on 30 patients with advanced malignant melanoma are successful, it will be a significant development.

Dr Soden said the laboratory tests on pancreatic cancer, using mice, had also proved very successful, but it might be a year or two before the CCRC team moved to clinical trials using people with pancreatic cancer, who typically had a life expectancy of 12-18 months.

“What we have demonstrated is that there is a very strong synergy between electroporation and the use of these new immunotherapy drugs, which can generate curative responses . . . The statistics for pancreatic cancers would be quite depressing, so any improvements at all in cancers like that . . . would be an important step in the right direction.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times