Cancer campaigners are hailing a “monumental leap forward” in pancreatic cancer treatment after a new drug trial significantly extended survival from what is the most lethal form of the disease.
The clinical trial found that 29% of patients given a combination of two chemotherapy drugs lived for at least five years compared with 16% who received the one chemotherapy drug that is still the NHS’s standard treatment.
The results are important because they could lead to an improvement in the prospects for people who develop pancreatic cancer, which has the lowest survival rates among the 21 most common forms of the disease and kills 8,800 Britons a year. Only one in 100 people survive for 10 or more years after their diagnosis.
“These results are a monumental leap forward in pancreatic cancer treatment. We believe this could herald a true step change in the treatment of this tough cancer, offering substantially more patients who have had surgery the chance to live for longer and, crucially, without significant added side-effects,” said Leanne Reynolds, head of research at the charity Pancreatic Cancer UK.
About 10,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year in the UK. However, the apparent breakthrough may only benefit the 800 who have surgery. The cancer is too advanced in most of the other 9,200 cases for surgery to be worthwhile.
Four in five patients are only diagnosed when the cancer has reached an advanced stage, and in 46% of cases only after they have presented as an emergency at an A&E unit. Survival rates have barely improved for 40 years, in contrast to some other forms of the disease. It is the fifth most common cause of cancer death in the UK.
The ESPAC-4 (European study group for pancreatic cancer) trial involved 732 patients from 92 hospitals in England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, France and Sweden. Of those given both gemcitabine and capecitabine, 28.8% survived for at least five years, compared with just 16.3% who received only gemcitabine.
Pancreatic Cancer UK and the researchers behind the findings are now urging the NHS to replace gemcitabine with the combination as the standard treatment for the one in 12 sufferers of the disease who undergo a resection of their pancreas.
“This is one of the biggest ever breakthroughs prolonging survival for pancreatic cancer patients,” said Prof John Neoptolemos of Liverpool University, who lead the team of researchers.
“When this combination becomes the new standard of care it will give many patients living with the disease valuable months and even years.” The two drugs taken together extend median overall survival from 25 and a half months for those on gemcitabine alone to 28 months, according to the study, which has been published in the Lancet.
A patient diagnosed with skin cancer has a ninefold chance of surviving for five years compared with a patient diagnosed with lung cancer
“The difference in short-term survival may seem modest, but improvement in long-term survival is substantial for this type of cancer,”
Meanwhile, separate research has also brought good news about lung cancer, which has the second worst survival rates among the commonest forms of cancer.
The number of people surviving for at least a year after diagnosis rose from 31% to 38% between 2010-2015, according to the NHS’s latest audit of the quality of care patients receive. Experts in the disease welcomed the increase, which is mainly the result of earlier diagnosis.
Ian Woolhouse, the audit’s senior clinical lead, said it was “very encouraging” that one-year survival had improved in what is the UK’s second most common form of cancer after breast cancer.
His team noted other progress too in how the NHS treats patients, including the fact that 60% of patients now receive some for of anti-cancer treatment. They analysed the records of 43,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015.
However, they voiced concern about the persistent “wide and unacceptable variation in standards of care” provided by NHS trusts and boards across England, Wales, Scotland and Guernsey. Only 57% of patients are seen by a specialist lung cancer nurse, for example, even though the target for that is 90%.
Dr Jesme Fox, medical director of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, said: “We are pleased to see this encouraging increase in patient survival. However, there is much still to do to ensure that lung cancer patients are diagnosed as early as possible and are able to access best practice treatment and care.”