Developing a dual treatment approach for pancreatic cancer

Dr Thomas R. Cox

Garvan Institute of Medical ResearchCancer Council NSW Funding: $450,000Funding duration: 2019–2021


Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer. In Australia, around 3,600 people are predicted to be diagnosed in 2019, many of whom will die of the disease within a year. As there are often no symptoms in its early stages, pancreatic cancer has usually spread by the time a diagnosis is made giving few options treatment.

Chemotherapy is the standard approach to treatment, however, it often does little to improve a patient’s outcome. Pancreatic cancer tumours feature high levels of connective tissue which provide cancer cells with protection from chemotherapy and other treatments. As the tumour grows, the connective tissue also grows and remodels itself, providing further protection to support the tumour’s development.

New treatment approaches are urgently needed to improve the low rate of survival.

The research

Dr Cox and his team are developing a way to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy in pancreatic cancer by teaming it with another treatment that targets the production of this protective tissue in the tumour.

The team recently discovered a drug which can stop the connective tissue from being produced – generating some exciting findings about its potential use to co-target pancreatic cancer. In this project, they will take their findings to the next phase – preclinical testing. The team will use 3D models which mimic cancer progression and connective tissue growth, coupled with state-of-the-art imaging, to maximise the efficiency of treatment whilst minimising toxicity.

In further preclinical testing, the team will combine this new drug with standard chemotherapy to co-target pancreatic cancer. They hope to confirm that the drug they have discovered can expose cancer cells and increase their sensitivity to chemotherapy. By monitoring the tumour response, the team will continue to refine and improve their targeting techniques to maximise efficacy.

The impact

In other cancers, this approach has shown to be more effective for delivering targeted treatment, minimising side-effects and reducing the likelihood drug resistance. This project will be the first to try a drug of this type in combination with chemotherapy. If successful, the researchers could begin testing this new treatment approach in clinical trials within 5 years.

Through this project, the team will also be laying the foundations for similar research with other cancer types. They hope the drug they have discovered may also be effective for co-targeting other solid tumours featuring high amounts of connective tissue. The 3D models and cutting-edge imaging techniques the team develop have the potential to revolutionise how we study cancer progression.

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