An experimental drug helped boost effectiveness of immunotherapy treatment against pancreatic cancer in mice, according to a recent study published this week in the Journal for Immuno Therapy of Cancer. Researchers out of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and BioXcel Therapeutics, Inc, in Washington DC, found the drug BXCL701, an experimental dipeptidyl peptidase (DPP) inhibitor, increased the number of immune cells surrounding the tumor, resulting in slowing tumor growth, and in some mice, eliminated the cancer, according to a press release.
“We show that by combining this drug with immunotherapy, we were able to activate the immune system in such a way that it could melt pancreatic tumors quickly and even completely cure some mice.” Allison Fitzgerald, Ph.D., at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and co-first author of the study, told Fox News during an interview this week.
Health experts told Fox News pancreatic cancer has been resistant to immunotherapy. Researchers said in the report, that these findings provide early evidence that the drug could jump-start an immune response against the disease.
Fitzgerald explained to Fox News that certain immune cells are able to recognize and kill cancer cells.
“Unfortunately, most cancers have developed ways to outsmart these anti-cancer immune cells, which allows the cancer to grow unchecked,” Fitzgerald further explained, “In pancreatic cancer, one way the cancer avoids the anti-cancer immune cells is by developing a very thick scar-like tissue that surrounds it, similar to how a moat surrounds and protects a castle. Just like a moat physically prevents attacks, this scar physically blocks the anti-cancer immune cells from getting to the cancer cells.”
Fitzgerald told Fox News, that the experimental drug can increase the ability of the cancer fighting cells to penetrate the scar tissue, allowing them to “cross this moat”. The medicine was administered orally to the mice and when given in combination with other anti-cancer immunotherapies the researchers saw some mice were completely cured, according to the report.
The study used two different mouse “models” of pancreatic cancer, including one with the same genetic abnormalities seen in human pancreatic cancers. Fitzgerald explained to Fox News that this model “looks the same as human pancreatic cancer under the microscope, and even responds to treatment similarly to patients with pancreatic cancer. Because of this, we think this model should closely relate to human disease.”
The researchers also noted that the drug was equally effective in the second model of pancreatic cancer, giving hope that these findings will also be consistent in human patients.
Besides curing some mice in the study, the authors noted the combination treatment also generated an immune-cell memory in the mice. According to the release, when cancer cells were injected into the cured mice months later, the immune systems in 10 of 13 mice were able to detect and kill the cancer cells, leaving them cancer-free again. Fitzgerald stated in the release “If this result holds true in humans, it means the therapy may have the potential to offer long-lasting remissions for patients with pancreatic cancer.”
The study’s corresponding author, Dr. Louis Weiner, who is also the director of Georgetown Lombardi and director of the lab where the research was conducted said in the release, “What we found to be unique in our study was how this drug candidate seems to enhance the effectiveness of immune response in pancreatic cancer, which is remarkable as standard immunotherapies have been unsuccessful to date.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 60,430 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in 2021 with an estimated 48,220 deaths, the release said. The health organization said pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, with only about 10 percent of pancreatic cancer patients living five years or more.