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Cancer researchers Ajay and Seema Singh have patented a new approach to treating pancreatic cancer based on strongly supportive laboratory data, USA Mitchell Cancer Institute has announced.
“Pancreatic tumors are hard to treat. Currently, there is no effective therapy,” said Ajay Singh, Ph.D., associate professor of Oncologic Sciences at Mitchell Cancer Institute. “Most patients die within the first year of their diagnosis, and less than 8 percent survive over five years.”
With more than 50,000 new cases and almost 42,000 deaths expected nationally from pancreatic cancer this year, the disease is on track to overtake breast cancer as the third-leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.
The husband-and-wife team began collaborating on the project after joining MCI in 2009. Ajay Singh had a background in pancreatic cancer research; Seema Singh had worked with chemokines, which are signaling proteins secreted by cells. They combined their expertise to better understand what makes pancreatic cancer so resistant to chemotherapy.
Researchers have long believed that the fibrous connective tissue found in pancreatic tumors plays a role in the disease’s chemo-resistance by restricting the delivery of the drug to the tumor cells. But a clinical trial initiated by a Cambridge-based pharmaceutical company that targeted this particular characteristic of pancreatic tumors failed.
The Singhs are digging deeper, trying to better understand the biology of pancreatic tumors and their response to chemotherapy. Based on their findings, they have formulated a combination of drug therapies that will target not only pancreatic tumor cells but also the surrounding cells that help tumor cells dodge chemotherapy. They received word in March that their patent application for combination therapies had been approved.
“Pancreatic tumor cells grow in a very harsh environment, and so they learn to grow and survive under stress very early during their development, which is one important reason that they fight chemotherapy so well,” said Ajay Singh, who has published four papers on related topics.
The Singhs are currently in the third year of a five-year $1.5 million grant awarded by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health to study pancreatic cancer and test their combination therapy approach in animal models.
They are also collaborating with MCI medical oncologists Dr. Moh’d Khushman and Dr. William Taylor to explore the possibility of a clinical trial that could bring their findings closer to pancreatic cancer patients. Ajay Singh said they and their physician scientists continue to learn about the complexity of pancreatic cancer and develop better ways to diagnose and classify pancreatic tumors at the molecular level.
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