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The death of Steve Jobs, the co-founder and chairman of the computer giant Apple, in 2011 has once more draw the public attention to pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest cancers known. The aggressive nature of this disease is certainly one of the major contributing factors to the poor rate of cure. On top of this, doctors still have a very limited arsenal of drugs and tool that could help in dealing with this severe condition, and the research on pancreatic cancer certainly attract much smaller funds compared to other types of malignancies.
Pancreatic cancer is often detected at an advanced stage since its clinical presentation is rather non-specific thereby making the consequent treatment a difficult task. In order to improve the chances of patient’s survival, the correct early diagnosis is a pressing need. Although a number of detection methods including the imaging based techniques are available, only a few of them have been established as clinically reliable approaches for detection of this disease.
Pancreatic cancer usually shows a high degree of resistance to the available therapeutic interventions. This calls for the development of novel target based therapies.
Existing treatments for pancreatic cancer have limited success
The existing treatment modalities available for the treatment of pancreatic cancer include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Surgery is generally employed to remove the affected part of pancreas or the entire organ. However, it is only effective if the cancer is not metastatic. Once cancer has spread to the other parts and organs of the body, surgical removal of pancreas proves futile to cure the patient of the disease, as the removal of all cancer cells fro the body becomes impossible. Palliative surgery can be used to relieve patients from pain in some cases. This surgery does not aim for cure but only for the temporary improvement of patient’s health.
Chemotherapy is also employed to treat pancreatic cancer. The drug most commonly used for this purpose is Gemcitabine (Gemzar). 5-fluorouracil is another important chemotherapeutic drug that has found some success. Chemotherapy is not always intended to fully treat cancer. It is often used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells that might have been left behind. It has been found that a single drug is usually ineffective in curing the disease, and therefore various drug combinations are commonly used. However, there are multiple side-effects associated with chemotherapy. Radiation is generally used in combination with chemotherapy or surgery. Usually the radiation is given for 5-6 weeks at a frequency of 5 days/week. Radiotherapy adds to the burden of side effects and complications, but is proven to be beneficial in the long terms. The common side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy include nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, vomiting and skin changes. Also, many patients have problems with maintaining the body weight and lose appetite.
In recent years, new drugs that can specifically target cancer cells are being designed. One such drug, erlotinib (Tarceva), was shown to improve the condition of pancreatic cancer patients at advanced stage of disease. It also has fewer side-effects compared to traditional chemotherapy.
In some cases, the treatment of pancreatic cancer can provide full relief from the disease. However, the therapeutic interventions are usually very stressful and often fail. It is a well-established fact that pancreatic tumors are highly resistant and the general worry among patients is the recurrence. In most of the pancreatic cancer patients, the disease is never completely treated. Therefore, there is a real need to develop novel therapeutic regimes to target this disease.