Project Title: Pathway to a Novel Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer - Targeting the Microenvironment (Stroma)

UNSW Professor Minoti Apte 300x550

Institution: The University New South Wales

Principal Investigator: Professor Minoti Apte OAM

Position Held: Director of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Group

Time required to complete project: 3 years

Project Summary: This project proposes a novel drug combination that will target not only pancreatic cancer cells, but also the specific cells in the tissue surrounding cancer cells that help cancer growth. The proposed two-pronged strategy has high potential to significantly improve the outcome of patients with pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is characterised by extensive fibrotic tissue/scar tissue that surrounds islands of cancer cells. The team at UNSW was the first group in the world to show that pancreatic stellate cells communicate extensively with cancer cells so as to help the cancer grow and spread through the body.

Current drugs used to treat pancreatic cancer mainly target only the cancer cells and have limited efficacy. The team at UNSW believe that a new approach is required to significantly improve disease outcome, which involves combining the drugs that attack cancer cells (e.g. gemcitabine) with compounds that can interrupt specific pathways which mediates the communication between cancer cells and pancreatic stellate cells.

Using such an approach in pilot studies with a mouse model of pancreatic cancer, the team at UNSW have obtained exciting results where the treatment not only shrinks the tumour, but more importantly, virtually eliminates spread through the body.

Before any promising strategy can be taken to clinical trials, robust scientific testing is essential. Therefore, the team at UNSW aim to test the proposed two-pronged treatment in all the scenarios encountered in pancreatic cancer including:

  1. already metastatic and therefore unresectable tumour;
  2. locally advanced and therefore unresectable tumour;
  3. borderline resectable tumour that could be associated with undetected micrometastases;
  4. initially resectable tumour (<20% cases), that recurs after surgery (possibly due to undetected micrometastases).

This project is designed such that the findings related to efficacy of treatment will be directly applicable to settings such as neoadjuvant treatment for resectable and borderline resectable cancers with unknown metastatic burden, the adjuvant setting to prevent cancer recurrence and in the most common presentation with established metastases. The findings from this project have the potential to be rapidly translated into the clinical environment.