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New US device delivers drugs directly to pancreatic tumours

5 February 2015

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, have developed a device that uses electric fields to drive chemotherapy drugs directly into pancreatic tumours, preventing their growth and in some cases, shrinking them.

The method, called iontophoresis, uses a constant current for long periods of time to deliver chemotherapy and the research team believes it may help to increase the number of patients who are eligible for surgery.  

Published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the study on mice showed that the device was able to deliver higher drug concentrations directly into tumour tissue, while avoiding harming healthy tissue.  The approach is particularly relevant to treating pancreatic tumours as the thick fibrous tissue which surrounds the tumour (stroma) makes it difficult to penetrate with drugs sent via the bloodstream.  

"Surgery to remove a tumour currently provides the best chance to cure pancreatic cancer," said Joseph DeSimone, Chancellor's Eminent Professor of Chemistry at the University.  "However, often a diagnosis comes too late for a patient to be eligible for surgery due to the tendency of the tumours to become intertwined with major organs and blood vessels."

For pancreatic cancer, the team says the new device could be used internally, using minimally invasive surgery to implant the device's electrodes directly onto a tumour. They hope to take the device to clinical trials once further safety tests are conducted.

"Progress in the treatment of pancreatic cancer has been persistent but incremental in the past few decades, relying largely on advances in drug therapies. To our knowledge, our study represents the first time iontophoresis has been applied to target pancreatic cancer," said Dr James Byrne, who led the research project.

"We hope our invention can be used in humans in the coming years and result in a notable increase in life expectancy and quality among patients diagnosed with pancreatic and other types of cancer," added Dr Byrne.

Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund CEO, Maggie Blanks, commented:
"The stroma coating pancreatic tumours is very difficult to penetrate, so any new way to get through this tissue to shrink tumours is going to be very welcome, especially if it makes more people eligible for surgery. We'll be extremely interested to hear the results of the clinical trials for this device. It's going to take a great deal of innovative thinking like this across a whole range of approaches - from earlier diagnosis to new surgical techniques to new drug therapies and personalised treatments -  to make progress with pancreatic cancer."

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