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Fighting a Killer

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Pancreatic cancer is very bad news. Only 5 percent of patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, the most common form of the disease, survive five years after diagnosis, and there haven't been any breakthrough advances in treatment for decades — at least, not until now, says Science's Mitch Leslie. A new study published in Science by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine presents a new treatment that could extend the lives of pancreatic cancer patients by more than 30 percent, though that translates to just a few months, Leslie says. Pancreatic cancer typically turns white blood cells into its allies, but the researchers wondered if they could take back the immune system and turn it back against the cancer by triggering a receptor protein called CD40, which is necessary for immune cells to attack tumors, Leslie adds. The researchers gave 21 pancreatic cancer patients the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine, which activates CD40, and found that the tumors stabilized or shrank in 15 of the patients. In experiments with mice, the researchers found that CD40-activating antibody in combination with gemcitabine prompted macrophages to break through the protective white blood cell wall the tumors had built and kill the cancer cells, Leslie says. The researchers are now planning to expand and test in larger patient populations, and investigate the possibility of using this treatment method in combination with other drugs.

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