A newly approved breast cancer drug can also affect pancreatic cancer, marking a significant step towards personalised medicine, Garvan Institute researchers have found.

We already know that pancreatic cancer is a killer.

Currently, five-year survival rates after diagnosis stand at just 7% – a figure that has scarcely improved in the last four decades. Most pancreatic cancers are diagnosed after the tumour has spread beyond the pancreas, making treatment even more challenging.

New findings, published online in the journal Gut, have now found a breast cancer treatment that can also be highly effective for pancreatic cancer.

Dr Marina Pajic, who leads the Personalised Cancer Therapeutics Group at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research (Cancer Division), led the study, and says it was designed to meet an urgent need for new, targeted therapies for pancreatic cancer.

Dr Pajic says, “We are thrilled to have shown, in preclinical models, that the breakthrough breast cancer drug palbociclib targets a major subtype of pancreatic cancer.”

“We know that the underlying drivers of pancreatic cancer at the molecular level differ from person to person.  Despite this, there are currently few treatments that directly target the molecular drivers of an individual’s pancreatic cancer, but only a one-size-fits-all combination chemotherapy approach – and the fact is that this simply isn’t effective for most patients.”

Researchers biopsied 550 tumours from pancreatic cancer patients, and, in preclinical models, investigated if palbociclib blocked tumours, and how it went about doing so. The effects were dramatic, and were seen at all stages of pancreatic cancer progression.

They also found that, in tumours, the ‘RB protein’ could be found in large amounts, making it potentially an important ‘biomarker’ of the tumour – and key for testing and early diagnosis.

“Having a good biomarker is essential for personalised medicine, because it gives us a way to predict who is likely to respond to treatment,” says Dr Angela Chou (Garvan & St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney), a pathologist and researcher who is first author on the new study.

“This gives us hope that, in people, measuring levels of RB could one day help us get the right treatment to the right patient,” Dr Pajic says.

Breakthroughs in personalised medicine like this are the key driver for Vodafone Foundation app DreamLab, which is helping to speed up the pace of cancer research at the Garvan Institute through the power of users’ smartphones.

The free app, available on iOS and Android, aims to uncover truths about cancer hidden within its DNA, by comparing different types of cancer cells.

For users, it’s simple: they plug in their phone at night, open the app, and their phone solves research puzzles, sending the results back to Garvan researchers via the Amazon cloud – like a giant crossword puzzle, with each app user solving a different part.

For cancer patients, the study’s discovery brings real hope.

Dr Chou agrees, “Excitingly, therapies [like this] are already in clinical trials for pancreatic cancer here in Australia – and we’d love to see testing for tumour RB levels in those trials to learn more about its power to predict treatment success in people.”

Terms and conditions

1: A compatible handset is required. Downloading DreamLab will consume data. Once downloaded, DreamLab can be used when your device (i) is connected to a charging source and (ii) has mobile network or WiFi connectivity. Mobile data to use DreamLab is free for Vodafone Australia customers on the Vodafone Australia network. Roaming incurs international rates.  More Terms and Conditions, here.

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Meg Retka-Tidd

Senior Manager, Partners & Programs, Vodafone Foundation

Meg Retka-Tidd,
Senior Manager, Partners & Programs, Vodafone Foundation

Working closely with our partners The Garvan Institute and Hello Sunday Morning, Meg helps the Vodafone Foundation live out its day-to-day purpose of using technology to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians.