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Pancreatic cancer vaccine trial

Fergus Walsh | 21:03 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

There is rarely positive news about pancreatic cancer. It has the worst survival rate of all common cancers - worse even than lung cancer. Patients are usually diagnosed late when the cancer is inoperable. Typically, patients often have less than six months to live, and unlike other cancers, there has been little improvement in long-term survival in the past 40 years.

So it is heartening to report on a late stage trial involving hundreds of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer. You can see my TV report here. It is not a new form of chemotherapy, but a vaccine trial. Most vaccines are used to prevent infection, but therapeutic cancer vaccines aim to treat disease by stimulating the immune system to recognise and target the cancer.

The TeloVac trial involves more than 50 hospitals, is funded by Cancer Research UK and coordinated by Royal Liverpool University Hospital. It is a Phase 3 trial, which involves comparing the new treatment to standard therapy, and is essential before any new therapy is licensed.

The scientists and doctors involved in the TeloVac trial are keen not to raise the expectations of patients. In earlier small-scale trials, some patients did have a prolonged life-expectancy of several months. But until the results of this major trial are known it won't be clear whether this was anything to do with the vaccine.

But the idea of using the immune system to fight cancer is taking hold. Cancer Research UK pointed to two examples in the past year. Firstly, a vaccine using cancer cells mixed with a patient's own immune cells, was shown to be capable of prolonging survival in patients with advanced prostate cancer. Called Provenge, it is now licensed for use in the US. Scientists also found that an antibody, ipilimumab was able to prolong survival in patients with advanced melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer.

The doctors in Liverpool are delighted with the take-up of the TeloVac trial, which is almost finished recruiting the 1,110 patients needed. I met three of the participants, Rhona Longworth, Joan Roberts and Charlie Williams. All had advanced pancreatic cancer and were having treatment at the Linda McCartney Cancer Centre. All showed determination and good humour in the face of this devastating disease.

They told me the vaccine had few side effects and they remained hopeful, both for themselves, but also for others in the future, who might benefit from their participation. My thanks to them and all the nurses and staff involved - I'll keep you informed about how the trial is going.

The gloom about pancreatic cancer was not lightened today by the results of a survey of patient experiences. Nearly one in four (24%) of pancreatic cancer patients surveyed said they visited their GP three or four times before being diagnosed with the disease compared to 17% of patients with other cancers. Forty-nine per cent of pancreatic cancer patients reported their health getting worse while waiting to see a hospital doctor, compared to 22% of all other cancers.

Professor Sir Mike Richards, National Clinical Director for Cancer said "This data clearly demonstrates that the treatment of pancreatic cancer patients is worse than patients affected by other cancers." Pancreatic Cancer UK, a national charity, expressed huge concern and said the patient experience needs markedly to improve.


  • Comment number 1.

    The problem with pancreatic cancer is that problems with the pancrease are not obvious. Lung cancer can manifest itself in breathing problems, skin cancers are often visible on the surface, prostate cancer often leads to bladder problems... but nothing obiously goes wrong when your pancreas is playing up.
    Maybe we should copy the approach for breast cancer, and routinely screen groups identifed to be at-risk.

  • Comment number 2.

    Paints an unattractive picture of the new 'tzars' of healthcare commissioning - GP's. They need to spend more time listening to their patients not less.

  • Comment number 3.

    'Maybe we should copy the approach for breast cancer, and routinely screen groups identifed to be at risk.' We've a long way to go even here, especially for women under 50. Where I live the only risk factor which gets you extra screening is family history. But there is no systematic attempt to ask all women about their family cancer history (unlike some other European countries) and most women round here in the target age group don't know that they can ask their doctor about extra screening, because the service is poorly advertised.

  • Comment number 4.

    I have one member of my family with Pancreatic Cancer. The good news in my case is although discovered quite late she is doing well after two and half years of conventional treatment. However I suggest one possible sign doctors could diagnise is back pain at night and being very tired . They usually dismiss these signs as they did with her. I think Doctors should consider first the worst and work backwords instead as they do now dismiss symptoms as stress etc

  • Comment number 5.

    #4 The problem is that most of the early symptoms of cancer manifest themselves as very common ailments. A symptom of a brain tumour is headaches, but if you have a headache you almost certainly don't have a brain tumour. Sending everyone with a headache to an oncology unit for CT scans etc will overwhelm the NHS in weeks and mean WORSE treatment for genuine cancer patients.

    I'm speaking from experience here... I work on skin cancer immunotherapy and recently had a mole grow in size and shape. I instantly went to my GP, was refered to a skin cancer clinic, seen by a consultant in 2 weeks.... and diagnoses with a basal cell papiloma..... which is just a fancy term for 'build up of normal cells'. Unusual in someone in their 30's but quite harmless.

    The best hope for progress will be rapid and simple diagnostic tests. For bowel cancer we're pretty close to a sort of pregnancy 'true-blue' strip that can detect blood in stool samples. That could be done at the GP's and instantly distinguish between those who have minor gut complaints and those who have something more serious.

  • Comment number 6.

    "Pancreatic cancer vaccine trial" is the title of the Fergus Walsh blog.

    Personally, not inclined to look for health problems, nor be an ostrich with head in sand either.

    So, went to Cancer UK website to review pancreatic cancer, and viewed types of conditions that may affect the pancreas. Very informative, plus, in many ways, reassuring. Highly recommend. We all need to check Cancer UK website, IMHO.

  • Comment number 7.

    Screen them for what? Sadly, there is no early diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. Much more research is needed, and more money needs to be pumped into funding dedicated research to see an improvement in prognosis like the fantastic improvements seen in breast cancer and childhood leukaemia.

  • Comment number 8.

    oh for goodness sake the scientists look like they have found something that will help a group of cancer sufferers that don't get much research into this type of cancer !! Its a good news story when there are not a lot of them going around .
    I take my hat off to the scientist's who are giving hope
    PS if you feel like moving onto brain cancer next I for one would be over the moon, thanks.

  • Comment number 9.

    I am curious as to why cancer charities like Cancer Research UK fund trials like this after all, it is the drug company producing the vaccine that will benefit financially.

    I hope this does not appear to be a disingenuous observation but, I feel strongly about this; especially given the reluctance of the medical establishment to look at alternative therapies for cancer.

  • Comment number 10.

    @watriler "Paints an unattractive picture of the new 'tzars' of healthcare commissioning - GP's. They need to spend more time listening to their patients not less."

    Please leave politics out of this... How are GPs supposed to achieve early diagnosis a disease for which we know of no specific clinical red flags and which is scarcely amenable to mass screening? Not even the "tzars" had that sort of power.

    (Disclaimer: I am not a GP and do not support the proposed reforms to the NHS.)

  • Comment number 11.

    Charles no one wants to fund "alternative" cancer therapies because they have almost 0% chance of working and exploit people hopes and fears to gain unscrupulous "alternative" practitioners their life savings.
    Traditional medicine has a fantastic track record at "stealing" "alternative" medicines successes in any case. One case would be Belladonna extract giving rise to the successful and scientifically proven atropine and hyoscine.
    However that is not to say that 99.99% of "alternative" medicine through its various varieties are not, bar the placebo affect, completely useless. And hence to suggest that charities with the public money on the understanding that they will fund research into therapies that are proven to work to waste it on proving that spinning round thrice while throwing "curative confetti" in the air to cure all cancers.
    Lastly cancer research UK are very experienced by now and no doubt have clauses in their contracts with the drug companies to reimburse them should the drug prove successful. However to do so with an alternative therapy firm would be unethical because they would have to either be fraudulent with their claims or simply make them up.
    PLease visit for more info on why a great deal of "alternative" medicine is fraudulent.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hello Lewis,

    Thank you for your considered response to my post however, you don't address the issue of cancer charities funding the future profits of drug companies - something that makes me uneasy at the very least.

    I would also suggest you look at the plentiful information on the benefits of Vitamin B17, or Laetrile. While it is fair to say that the jury remains out on this vitamin, this is largely because no clinical trials have been carried out because the drug companies can't make enough money from it.

    I fully agree that a great deal of alternative medicine is fraudulent - of course it is however, that doesn't mean it all is.

    Don't you think those suffering and dying from this modern plague deserve every possible chance? Shouldn't every avenue, however strange it sounds, should be explored it there's a chance it could stop people dying early?

    I hope I've maintained your intelligent approach here in my reply. It is so important that this debate is conducted in the most considered (that word again) manner.



  • Comment number 13.

    Sorry Lewis, I reread your post and saw the observation about the potential reimbursement of cancer charities by drug companies which I did not acknowledge in my previous post however, that sounds like an assumption to me and, as I work for a "Corporation" I can tell you this: I have never encountered so soulless an entity as a corporation.

    I would be very surprised if the relationship between a cancer charity and a drug company would function to the benefit of the charity. They exist for one thing and, one thing alone: to provide dividends for their shareholders because, if they don't, the self same shareholders will fire them - and they can.

  • Comment number 14.

    This is a wonderful step forward. For years I worked as an orderly in nursing homes and med-surg floors in hospitals, and believe me, every word in this article about the suffering and death that pancreatic cancer patients endure is 100% true. Their condition was always worse than any other disease I ever witnessed. PAN Ca destroys bodies, families, spirits, and lives; yet most people I know have never even heard of it. My hat is off to any and all of the researchers who are trying to stop it.


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