Breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer research

22 July 2016 | Adjunct Professor Karen Canfell
Pancreatic cancer

At Cancer Council NSW, we get a lot of questions about our research into pancreatic cancer. Despite improvements in survival rates across more common types of cancer, only 6% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will survive past five years. However, the researchers that we fund are making important steps forward in finding the answers that will help us beat pancreatic cancer.


The challenges with pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer affecting Australians today due to a number of factors:

  • It is aggressive and hard to treat
  • Even when the cancer is in its early stages, it can still spread quickly to other parts of the body
  • People with pancreatic cancer are often diagnosed when their disease is very advanced
  • Current chemotherapies have little effect on tumour growth and spread
  • Scar tissue forms around the cancer, making it difficult for drugs to target

As a result of these problems, the survival rate for pancreatic cancer has remained unchanged over the last three decades. This highlights the urgent need to find new treatments that are effective in targeting this very aggressive type of cancer.


Our research commitment

  • At Cancer Council NSW we are committed to funding world-class research that will help reduce the impact of cancer on the community
  • Over the last 5 years, we have invested nearly $5.2 million into pancreatic cancer projects
  • These projects are being led by outstanding researchers like Professor Minoti Apte and Dr Phoebe Phillips from UNSW, who are helping us better understand pancreatic cancer and uncover new ways to tackle it.


Stopping the growth of pancreatic cancer

Professor Apte and her team discovered that the cells around the pancreas, called pancreatic stellate cells, can help the tumour to grow. However, the exact reason for this was unclear at first. Now the research team has found that these cells release certain chemicals that stimulate cancer development and help it spread. Professor Apte showed that by neutralising one of these chemicals, it is possible to reduce the growth of a tumour within the pancreas. If this approach is combined with traditional chemotherapies, the chance of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body can be eliminated. This is a crucial breakthrough for pancreatic cancer research which could significantly improve survival rates. Find out more about this project.

Blocking key proteins

Dr Phillips and her team have recently found that there are two proteins (called heat shock proteins) which help to form scar tissue around a pancreatic tumour. This scar tissue acts as a barrier, protecting the cancer against the effects of treatment and allowing it to grow and thrive. As part of Dr Phillips’ new project, her team will look at ways of targeting these heat shock proteins. They predict that by switching off these proteins, the amount of scar tissue forming around the cancer will be reduced. This will make the pancreatic cancer more vulnerable and responsive to therapy, which could improve outcomes for people affected by this disease. Find out more about this project


What does this research mean?

These research projects have opened the door to new, revolutionary opportunities for treating pancreatic cancer. The findings show that in order to improve the outlook for people with pancreatic cancer, a combination of approaches is needed to attack not only the cancer cells, but the surrounding cells help the cancer to grow and spread. Ultimately, this could make the tumour less aggressive and more vulnerable to treatment, and that would finally help us increase survival rates.  


Find information about pancreatic cancer.

Find out about other research we are currently funding.