Researching the cures


Targeted drug ‘significantly’ delays progression of some advanced pancreatic cancers

A ‘precision drug’ designed to target specific genetic faults within cancer cells has caused cautious excitement, by delaying the progression of some advanced pancreatic cancers after chemotherapy treatment.   

Early findings from the ongoing global ‘POLO’ clinical trial has shown that patients treated with the drug called olaparib had their cancer held in check by an average of 7.4 months, compared with 3.8 months for patients treated with a placebo.

olaparib capsules

The data, announced at the prestigious American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that two years after treatment, 2 in 10 people (22.1%) treated with olaparib had no cancer progression, compared with 1 in 10 (9.6%) who received the placebo.

The findings suggest that olaparib could be an effective new treatment for the small percentage of pancreatic cancer patients whose disease is driven by a fault in the BRCA genes.

Olaparib is a ‘precision drug’ known as a PARP inhibitor, and is specially designed to target cancer cells that carry a fault in genes that help cells repair damage to their DNA, such as the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes.   PARP inhibitors have shown to be helpful to some patients with breast and ovarian cancers, because some of these involve faulty BRCA genes.

The researchers carried out genetic testing on 3,315 people with pancreatic cancer, and 247 were found to have an inherited fault in either the BRCA 1 or 2 genes.

The drug trial involved 154 patients after completion of their chemotherapy treatment. Ninety-two were given olaparib tablets and 62 the placebo tablets, with the researchers recording the time it took before patients’ cancers got worse.

Although side effects were more common among those treated with olaparib the researchers said there was not difference to the quality of life between the two groups of patients.

Professor Hedy L. Kindler, who led the study from the University of Chicago, said that the study opens the door to a new era of personalised care for this difficult-to-treat cancer. She added: “Roughly one in five patients responded to olaparib for a median of two years, which is truly remarkable for metastatic pancreatic cancer. For patients with BRCA-driven metastatic pancreatic cancer, we may be seeing a change in patients’ disease trajectory.”

The study is ongoing and will generate further data to gauge the impact of olaparib on the longer-term survival of patients within the study.