Pancreatic cancer is the most lethal cancer in the world; only 5% of patients live longer than five years following diagnosis and 75% of them fail to survive the first year. Every day, more than 1,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. Of these, approximately 985 will die. It is so deadly because there are usually no symptoms during the early stages, when the tumour would be treatable. Symptoms are so non-specific that between 80% and 85% of patients receive the diagnosis in advanced stages.
Doctors María Abad and María Vicent are specialist researchers in this type of cancer and are leading two innovative projects to fight against this deadly disease.
The project led by Dr Maria Abad holds that the exosomes used by tumour cells to communicate with each other contain micropeptides. The function of many of these molecules, which are those that form proteins, is unknown because they fall within the category of so-called junk DNA and therefore have always been ignored. The research focuses on analysing which micropeptides are used by pancreatic cancer to promote progression of the disease, with the aim of finding new biomarkers and therapies.
Dr María Vicent’s project seeks to design nanoparticles that contain chemotherapy drugs able to selectively kill the pancreatic tumour cells without damaging other healthy cells and organs. The researcher also wants to develop a nanovaccine that will take advantage of the patient’s immune system and thus prevent tumour recurrence years later. She considers this would be a way to increase the life expectancy of these patients.
We need more innovation and research to address this illness in the most optimal way and reduce its incidence and lethality. But what is the most efficient approach? How important is early detection in this case and how can we approach this aspect? Can we cure pancreatic cancer and prevent its reappearance? Are we close to having a liquid biopsy system which will enable early detection of pancreatic cancer? What therapeutic options are currently available to treat pancreatic cancer? Are there a lot of ongoing clinical trials, or not enough? What innovations do you think could be most successful in the fight against pancreatic cancer in the coming years? And, in general, what are the new paradigms in cancer research and the new technologies with which to approach it? Do you think cancer could become a chronic disease, rather than a deadly one?
Dr María Abad, group leader at the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO), in Barcelona.
Dr María Vicent, group leader at the Príncipe Felipe Research Centre Foundation (CIPF), in Valencia.
Jessica Mouzo, journalist at El País.