Cancer Research UK has started clinical trials of Merck & Co’s MK-0752 in combination with Eli Lilly’s Gemzar in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer.

The charity said this morning that around 60 patients are to be recruited into the Phase I/II study which is designed to test the effect of adding MK-0752 to the current standard treatment Gemzar (gemcitabine).

MK-0752, which is being provided for the trial by Merck under a collaboration with CR UK, is designed to block certain enzymes essential for cell growth in a cell signalling pathway called Notch, which can ultimately prompt cell suicide.

Earlier tests of the drug in isolation have already determined its side-effect and tolerability profile, and the current Phase I/II study, which is open label, multi-centre, non-randomised in nature, will first determine a suitable dose and then test its effectiveness in treating pancreatic cancer.

According to Nigel Blackburn, director of drug development at Cancer Research UK’s Drug Development Office, the trial is “a promising step to find much-needed new treatments for pancreatic cancer so more lives can be saved”.

Each year 7,800 people are diagnosed with the disease in the UK, and while there has been a marked improvement over the last few years the prognosis remains very poor, with just 16% surviving one year and 3% alive after five years.

Late diagnosis and poor treatment

Two key factors are fuelling the poor survival rates seen with the disease – first, by the time patients are diagnosed with the disease it is mostly in the advanced stages, and second there are currently very few treatment options for pancreatic cancer.

And CR UK is hoping to address this unmet medical need. “We are investing heavily into pancreatic cancer research in areas including the development of potential new vaccine treatments and searching for new ways to detect the disease early on so it can be treated as effectively as possible,” Blackburn stressed.