Ulster University has developed a pioneering treatment for pancreatic cancer, which researchers are hailing as the first breakthrough in over 40 years that could significantly boost survival rates.

The team has developed a new, minimally invasive treatment, switched on by ultrasound, which has shown a five-fold reduction in tumour size in initial tests on the most common kind of pancreatic tumour.

The treatment comprises tiny oxygen filled microbubbles which have in-active drug attached to the surface, delivered by injection and then burst once inside the tumour by ultrasound waves that also activate the drug, in a highly-targeted approach designed to minimise impact on surrounding healthy tissues. 

“We have also shown that our treatment can be combined with existing pancreatic cancer treatments leading to an even greater therapeutic effect,” said Ulster University’s Norbrook Chair of Pharmaceutical Science, John Callan. “This really is a groundbreaking development and one of the most promising advances in pancreatic cancer research for decades”. 

Delivering oxygen directly to cancer cells could also boost the effectiveness of existing treatments for a range of cancer types, according to Professor Callan. “Conventional cancer treatments such as radiotherapy and certain chemotherapies are often limited by poor oxygen supply, which is a characteristic of most solid tumours given their unique blood vessel structure. When our microbubbles burst, they provide a temporary boost in the amount of oxygen available in the tumour, enhancing the effectiveness of techniques that require oxygen to work,” he explained.

The majority of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed at a late stage where surgery is no longer possible, and just 4% will survive the disease. It is hoped that this experimental therapy could shrink tumours to back to a size where such intervention and other treatments are possible, improving patients’ prognosis.

The technology is being developed by Ulster University Professors John Callan and Tony McHale, University of Oxford’s Professor Eleanor Stride and one of Northern Ireland’s top pancreatic cancer surgeons, Mark Taylor. The team is now considering the best way to move the therapy to the clinic as quickly as possible.