Innovating treatment options for pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer


by Grace Glausier

Aug 17, 2018

As cancer research continues to evolve, we continue to push the envelope to bring better, faster, more effective treatments to the forefront for our patients.

One exciting recent advancement comes in the fight against pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. Often diagnosed in late stages, people with this type of cancer traditionally have had limited options.

But a breakthrough radiopharmaceutical treatment, or liquid radiation, recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is bringing new hope.

Understanding pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer

Although similar in name, pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs) and pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma cancer, commonly known as pancreatic cancer, are biologically very different. Pancreatic ductal cancer begins in the exocrine portion of the pancreas, which is responsible for making the enzymes that help your body digest food.

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, on the other hand, originate in the endocrine cells. These cells are gathered in “islets,” which are essentially islands of endocrine cells that are peppered throughout the pancreas. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors consist of only about 5 percent of all pancreas tumors, making it much more rare than pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Liquid radiation: A new wave of cancer therapy

For decades, while research breakthroughs have been increasing people’s odds against other types of cancers, the field of neuroendocrine oncology wasn’t seeing much progress. But thanks to recent clinical trials, many of which involved patients at Baylor University Medical Center and Texas Oncology at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center, this disease has seen several new drug approvals in just the past year.

One exciting recent advancement is lutetium Lu 177 dotatate, a type of liquid radiation that works by targeting a high dose of radiation at the cancerous cells in the pancreas. Administered through an IV, the radioactive hormone binds to the neuroendocrine cells, giving radiation directly to the cancerous cells that need it.

In clinical trials, patients who received this treatment saw a 79 percent reduction in the progression of their disease, meaning this treatment has the potential to significantly slow the growth of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors.

Approved by the FDA in January 2018, this treatment is a game-changer and a more targeted alternative to chemotherapy and radiation.

Baylor University Medical Center and Texas Oncology are one of the few locations in the country already administering this treatment to eligible patients. Through clinical trials in 2017, our patients and physicians were instrumental in bringing the therapy to the point where it is today, and we’re excited to see how advancements like this are catapulting us forward to a new level of cancer care.

Because no cancer is one-size-fits-all, unfortunately, this will not be the answer for everyone diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. It also is not a “cure,” either. But it is an extremely useful tool for oncologists to add to the tool belt to slow down the progression of this disease.

I like to tell my patients that cancers are a bit like people — they come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are fast, some slow, some tall, some short. This is one of the biggest challenges we face in all types of cancer, whether pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors or pancreatic ductal cancers.

Our hope is that one day, we’ll have the treatment to fit every individual type of cancer, rather than continuing to try “one size fits all” approaches.

In the meantime, we will continue to push forward promising new treatments and therapies to help give people the best possible odds in fighting this disease.

Learn more about cancer care and ongoing research at Baylor Scott & White Health.

About the Author

Grace Glausier is the manager of digital content strategy for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.

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