Cancer immunotherapy involves efforts to harness the patient’s own immune system to recognize and attack tumor cells. To date, the effectiveness of immunotherapy for pancreatic cancer patients has been limited. However, there are scientific research studies and clinical trials underway to improve and expand upon immunotherapeutic approaches to benefit pancreatic cancer patients.
One of the cancer types that has seen the most success from immunotherapy is melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. A recent study, published in Clinical Cancer Research and profiled by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), suggests that a melanoma patient’s age may influence their response to immunotherapy.
The research team, including investigators from the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, New York University School of Medicine and other prestigious institutions, evaluated records of more than 500 patients with melanoma who were treated with an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda. Looking at the patients’ tumor and age demographics, and conducting similar analyses in mice, they found that the older the person or mouse, the better their response to the drug.
Keytruda, which was approved by the FDA last year, has also shown some promise for certain pancreatic cancer patients. Keytruda acts as a “checkpoint inhibitor,” blocking the tumor cells’ innate ability to shield themselves from an immune attack. Precision medicine studies have shown that Keytruda is especially effective in patients with molecular alterations known as high microsatellite instability or defective DNA mismatch repair mechanisms. These discoveries led to the drug’s approval for the treatment of any solid tumor, anywhere in the body, with these characteristics.
Every pancreatic tumor is different. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) strongly recommends molecular profiling of your tumor to help determine the best treatment options.
Now, doctors and researchers are continuing to merge precision medicine efforts with immunotherapy approaches to determine which patients are most likely to respond to certain treatments.
“We think of precision medicine as basing a patient’s treatment on their tumor’s molecular characteristics, but clinical features and demographics can be just as meaningful,” said Lynn Matrisian, PhD, MBA, chief science officer at PanCAN. “It’s intriguing to see the researchers’ findings that the proportion of immune cells that are capable of attacking the patient’s melanoma cells, as opposed to immune cells that help the tumor hide from the immune system, increases with age – leading to better immunotherapy responses in older patients.”
She continued, “We don’t know yet whether these findings will apply to pancreatic cancer or other solid tumor patients, but it’s important to consider all types of biological, clinical, behavioral and demographic information to determine the best treatment option for each patient.”