Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), only about 11% of patients are expected to survive more than five years after diagnosis. The disease is usually not discovered until it is in the advanced stages, making it difficult to treat.
Beating the Odds
Kathy Wilkes of Ormond Beach in Florida was recently interviewed by a reporter from the New York Post. Kathy received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2018. Kathy is 71 years old and counting on surviving many more years.
Her initial treatment consisted of the standard regimen of chemotherapy and radiation followed by an operation to remove a portion of her pancreas. Within a year, her cancer, which had been considered to be in remission, had spread to her lungs. Yet she would not give up. Especially after seeing a case report.
Kathy found a case report published in 2016 in the NEJM. It described a patient who had stage 4 colon cancer. The patient was treated with an experimental gene therapy that targeted a specific mutation and molecule named KRAS G12D. Kathy had that mutation and molecule.
A number of pancreatic cancer patients have the KRAS mutation. However, only about four percent of patients with pancreatic cancer have the KRAS mutation together with a certain molecule, G12D, that binds to the surface of the cell. If both are present, the patient is then eligible to receive the novel treatment.
Kathy said that she knew immediately this was the treatment that would save her life.
The next step was to find Dr. Eric Tran, who authored the original report as well as the latest New England Journal report. Dr. Tran had been at the NIH when he treated a patient who had colon cancer. Kathy was able to locate Dr. Tran at a cancer center in Portland, Oregon. She asked him if she would be eligible to receive the novel treatment and anxiously awaited his reply.
Dr. Tran’s answer was a very positive “yes,” even though Kathy’s cancer was not the same form of cancer. However, she was eligible to receive the novel treatment because they both had the same genetic mutation. Dr. Tran began Kathy’s new treatment.
Billions of T Cells
Dr. Tran began therapy by taking samples of Kathy’s T cells. The T cells are immune system cells that kill bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells.
The T cells from Kathy’s sample were genetically modified in the lab. They were then reprogrammed to attack tumor cells. The team caused the reprogrammed T cells to multiply billions of times. At this point, they were returned to Kathy’s body through one infusion.
That infusion took place in 2021 on June 14th. The tumors in Kathy’s lungs began to shrink until, within six months, they had been reduced by seventy-two percent.
Yet the doctors caution that no one knows how long the treatment will continue to prevent the cancer from returning.
One Success and One Failure
A second pancreatic cancer patient who received the treatment at the same cancer clinic did not survive. Dr. Tran said that their mission now is to discover the reason the treatment did not work for the second patient.
Rom Leidner, M.D., co-authored the newest report on the novel treatment. Dr. Leidner explains that it is a living drug and a one-time treatment. That means that the T cells keep growing and multiplying within the immune system. Of course, he still advises that Kathy’s doctors keep continued surveillance in the event the cancer returns.
More Research is Required
Experts agree that there is a need for more research. Doctors Leidner and Tran are currently recruiting for a phase one clinical trial for continued investigation.
The KRAS mutation is common among ovarian, lung, and pancreatic cancers. The doctors agree that this is the first time they may have an approach that could treat a larger group of tumors than any treatment currently available.