NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) – Researchers at the University of Oklahoma say their latest experimental treatment may provide hope for some patients with pancreatic cancer.

Researchers are focusing on a treatment for metastatic pancreatic cancer. Metastasis occurs when cancer cells spread beyond the original tumor.

“It is the metastasis of cancer that kills about 90% of cancer patients,” Wei R. Chen, Ph.D., said. “Pancreatic cancer is the worst of all because it metastasizes so fast. At the time of diagnosis, 80% of patients would either have local advancement or distance metastasis – where the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The five-year survival rate of the patients with distance metastatic pancreatic cancer is only about 3%.”

Chen’s research team is working with Min Li, a leading expert in pancreatic cancer research, to investigate immune responses in relation to the treatment.

Chen’s research group has developed a novel method called localized ablative immunotherapy.

First, surgeons use a laser to destroy solid tumors. Then an immunostimulant drug that Chen’s group developed is administered at the site of the tumor to stimulate and direct patients’ immune response to fight cancer cells.

“It is kind of like a one-two punch,” Chen said. “When tumors are destroyed by ablation, tumor antigens and other contents from the cancer cells are released. Our novel drug can help by combining those antigens to stimulate immune cells to kill the tumor cells – not only the ones treated by the ablation, but also the remaining tumor cells at the treatment site as well as the untreated metastatic tumor cells at the distant sites.”

He compares it to a kind of cancer vaccine. It doesn’t prevent the cancer, but it can help the body better fight it.

“Like the vaccines against viral infections, they stimulate the immune system so that the immune system knows how to fight it,” he said. “Our treatment is a trigger to stimulate, enhance and guide the immune system – telling it what to fight and how to fight against the tumor. It behaves like a vaccine.”

“The work we’ve done so far is preliminary, yet promising in pre-clinical studies and clinical trials,” he said. “Now we need to look into many different components of this novel therapy – the dosage, how much ablation needs to be done to produce the right effect, how much of the drug do we need to use, and to better understand the impacts on immune system and survival rates. Immunological studies will improve our understanding of how and why the immune system responds.”