Cancer.  The dreaded “C” word.  It is fear behind every dietary choice we make, every statistic we read regarding pollution levels in the air, land, or water and the pesticides in our food.  There isn’t a day that passes that we aren’t reading “x increases risk of cancer” or “x can decrease our risk of cancer.”  Anyone who ever had a family member or friend diagnosed with cancer knows that shocking fear that numbs the brain and leaves you speechless.  Furthermore, anyone with a cancer diagnosis knows that same fear mixed with confusion and the tendrils of despair. To have that diagnosis also be pancreatic cancer may raise that despair and fear to panic levels.

We have all read the stories of many famous people with pancreatic cancer who did not survive; Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze, and Alan Rickman.  That doesn’t begin to touch the thousands of other people who fought the battle out of the public eye.  Now there is new hope for the treatment of pancreatic cancer.  Scientists reveal how to treat pancreatic cancer in just two weeks.

Pancreatic Cancer in numbers

The 7th leading cause of cancer deaths globally is pancreatic cancer, and it accounts for 3% of cancers in the United States.  According to the American Cancer Society, about 56,770 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States, and about 45,750 will die from it.  Approximately 1 in 64 people will get pancreatic cancer, with specific demographics having higher risk factors.  Men tend to get it a little more than women.

Globally, there were about 432,242 deaths associated with pancreatic cancer in 2018 and about 458,918 new diagnoses.  Only 24% survive past the first year, with only 9% who survive for five years.

What truly makes pancreatic cancer deadly is that it usually isn’t diagnosed until it has reached stage 3 or 4.  Many of the diagnostic tests are not specific enough to catch it in its early stages.

The percentages of diagnosed cases tend to run significantly higher in more developed countries, such as the U. S. and Europe, with far lower numbers in Africa.  How much of that is due to the environment and culture vs. capability to diagnose and report is uncertain.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer tumors

According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, there are two broad categories of Pancreatic cancer which then are subcategorized:

Exocrine Tumors:

These start in the exocrine cells of the pancreas.  These cells make the enzymes that aid in digestion.  This broad category and related subcategory of tumors make up 93% of all pancreatic cancer diagnoses.

  1. Adenocarcinoma: This is the most common form of cancer tumor regardless of the originating organ.  In this case, it is in the pancreas, or more specifically, formed from the cells lining the pancreatic duct.  This form shows itself in 9 out of 10 people with pancreatic cancer.
  2. Acinar cell carcinoma: An extremely rare form caused by the pancreas making too much lipase, which is an enzyme that digests fat.
  3. Intraductal papillary-mucinous neoplasm: This tumor can be benign and become cancerous.   It forms from either the main duct of the pancreas or its branches.  The chances of it being carcinogenic increases when it develops from the main duct.
  4. Mucinous cystic neoplasm with an invasive adenocarcinoma: Another rare tumor that is a cyst filled with a thick liquid, only found in one area of the pancreas.  Most frequently, that area is the tail.  Women commonly receive this diagnosis.  It can be benign if there isn’t an invasive adenocarcinoma.

Neuroendocrine tumors or Pancreatic Neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs):

This is a slower-growing tumor type that makes up about 7% of diagnoses.  These develop from islet cells that control blood sugar levels.  A tumor forms when there is an abnormal growth of these cells.

  • They can be hormone-producing, otherwise called “functional” or non-hormone producing, called nonfunctional. Most are nonfunctional.
  • Each display different symptoms, respond to treatment differently and behave differently depending upon the hormone controlled.
    • Gastrinoma controls gastrin
    • Glucagonoma control glucagon
    • Insulinoma controls insulin
    • Somatostatinoma controls somatostatin
    • VIPoma controls vasoactive intestinal peptides
    • Nonfunctional Islet cell tumor has no hormonal function

These are not all the types of tumors which can form, but it does encompass the majority.

Risk Factors of Pancreatic Cancer

Science is not clear what causes pancreatic cancer, but there are certain risk factors that can contribute.  According to the American Cancer Society, some of those risk factors are related to habits and lifestyle, while others we have no control over.

Lifestyle risk factors

  • Twice as many smokers are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer as non-smokers, and your risk markers decrease if you quit.  This includes cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco products.  Smoking contributes to about 25% of pancreatic cancer cases.
  • Those who are overweight with a BMI of over 30% have a 20% higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer.  Choosing to eat healthy, exercise, and keeping your weight down can help limit your risk.
  • This applies primarily toward those with Diabetes Type 2 and may be linked with a tendency to being overweight.
  • Inflammation of the pancreas. Having chronic pancreatitis typically links with heavy drinking and smoking.
  • Chemical exposure. There are certain chemicals that one can be exposed to in the workplace.  The workplaces primarily exposed are in dry cleaning and metalworking industries.

Uncontrollable risk factors

  • Your age. Almost all diagnoses are at least 45 years of age, with 2/3rds being 65 or older, with the average age of diagnosis being 70.
  • Your gender. Males have a higher chance of developing pancreatic cancer than women.  It is possible this is due to a higher likelihood of participating in lifestyle risk factors.
  • Your race. African Americans have a slightly higher percentage of developing pancreatic cancer.  Potentially also due to an increased percentage of participating in lifestyle risk factors.
  • Family History
  • Approximately 10% of cases are caused by a genetic mutation that is passed down through generations.  These cases can be related to mutations also related to:
    • breast cancer
    • ovarian cancer
    • gene mutation creating chronic pancreatitis,
    • Lynch syndrome, a mutated gene causing colorectal cancer
    • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome is a mutated gene responsible for polyps in the digestive system and multiple other cancers.

fighting cancerNew hope in a 2-week treatment for pancreatic cancer

In October of 2019, a study was published in Oncotarget from a group of Isreali scientists headed by Professor Malka Cohen-Armon of Tel-Aviv University, and her associates worked along with Talia Golan and associates of Sheba Medical Center.   This study involved injecting mice with cancer cells from a human pancreas ductal adenocarcinoma.  They then injected the mice with a specific modified phenanthridine PJ34 for two weeks.  80-90% of the cancer cells had been eradicated two weeks after the injection, and one mouse showed 100% within 30 days.  PJ34 works by instigating cell death during the multiplying stage.

Even more incredibly, PJ34 did not have any effect on surrounding healthy cells as it usually occurs in treatments.  The mice were able to gain weight and grow normally after the treatment.

While PJ34 did eradicate the cancer cells, it cannot be stated that it is a cure at this early time.  Theoretically, ridding the body of the cells should mean that the cancer is gone. Therefore, life expectancy should return to relatively normal.

PJ34 was first used on triple-negative breast cancer, which also had a low percentage of a five-year survival rate and was very difficult to treat.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Professor Cohen-Armon is quoted in saying that it is expected to take two years to get to human trials.  Pigs will be the next test subject prior to requesting permission from the FDA to start human trials.

foods for pancreatic cancerFinal Thoughts on Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is most deadly due to its difficulty in diagnosis in its early stages.  Fortunately, many of the risk factors are such that we can make lifestyle changes to decrease our chances of developing pancreatic cancer.  Scientists around the globe continually strive to find not only a better treatment option but also a better diagnostic tool.  This is evidenced by these scientists revealing how they discovered a way to treat pancreatic cancer in two weeks.  While still early, the scientists seem very hopeful and assured of its success.