Pancreatic cancer clinical trial aims to improve survival rates

Pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of any major cancer. Sadly, the statistics have not changed significantly over the last 40 years.

Patients have just a five to seven per cent chance of surviving five years after diagnosis and two-thirds of pancreatic cancer patients will die within the first 12 months of diagnosis, making every extra day spent with loved ones extremely valuable.

A new study by Professor Brendan Jenkins, PhD student Mr William Berry and Dr Daniel Croagh, a hepatobiliary surgeon from Monash Health, has led to a new clinical trial that is aiming to improve survival rates with a drug that is currently used to treat colon cancer.

“Treatment options must improve if patients are to be given the best chance at surviving for longer,” says Prof Jenkins, from the Centre for Innate Immunity and Infectious Diseases.

Clinical trial underway

The study, published in the International Journal of Cancer, laid the groundwork for the trial by showing around 10 per cent of patients with a specific genetic tumour profile could benefit from the drug, called an epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitor.

The Victoria-wide trial, led by Dr Croagh and already underway at Monash Health, will see between 150 and 200 patients screened for suitability with the drug.

“We are taking the guesswork out of treatment for pancreatic cancer,” Prof Jenkins says. “Instead of a ‘one size fits all’ approach of chemotherapy currently used, the drug is selected for the patient based on the genetic make-up of their tumour and how likely it is an individual will respond to the treatment – an approach known worldwide as precision medicine.”

In the study, the team also refined an endoscopic technique used to extract biopsies of tumours, so tumour samples can be used to genetically screen patients for compatibility with new drug.

World-first application of precision medicine

“Currently, less than 50 per cent of patients are able to undergo genetic screening. This new, optimised technique overcomes the limitations of extracting samples from patients with inoperable, metastatic tumours – opening up genetic screening to virtually all patients, even those with advanced cancer.”

Prof Jenkins and Dr Croagh are hopeful the clinical trial will lead to more targeted treatment approaches to improve responsiveness to drugs and give patients a better chance at surviving for longer.

“While there is no silver bullet, we hope this is the beginning of a shift towards better patient outcomes,” they said.

“If successful, this clinical trial will be one of the first applications of precision medicine – targeting cancer treatment to the genetic profile of the tumour – in pancreatic cancer anywhere in the world.”

Pancreatic cancer facts

  • In 2017, an estimated 3271 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in Australia (1722 men and 1548 women).
  • Pancreatic cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer death in Australia.
  • Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality of all major cancers. Two-thirds of pancreatic cancer patients die within the first year of diagnosis.
  • Pancreatic cancer makes up 2.4 per cent of all new cancer cases diagnosed in 2017.
  • Survival rates for pancreatic cancer have not changed significantly in
    nearly 40 years.

This research was generously funded by the NHMRC, Monash Comprehensive Cancer Consortium, Amgen, Epworth HealthCare, Cook Medical, The CASS Foundation and Illumina.


Professor Brendan Jenkins, Mr William Berry, Dr Dan Croagh