A tiny implant could hold the key to improving treatment of pancreatic cancer

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Pictured above: A prototype developed at ACMD at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne of the pancreatic cancer implant

An implant that delivers chemotherapy directly into the tumour of a patient with pancreatic cancer has potential to improve the surgical outcome by shrinking the tumour size so it can be safely removed.

The proposed implant is part of a world-first project being developed by researchers from Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Wollongong Australia in partnership with ACMD – Australia’s first collaborative, hospital-based biomedical engineering research centre, located at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne.

“The challenge with some pancreatic tumours is the size prohibits any surgical removal because the tumour may be encroaching on other areas of the pancreas and also may have metastasized to other parts of the body, which then makes surgery very challenging and risky,” says ACMD Project Lead Simon Moulton, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Swinburne University of Technology.

The challenges of treating pancreatic tumours

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare pancreatic cancer is tipped to be the second leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide by 2030. It also has one of the lowest survival rates.

Pancreatic tumours have a dense fibrotic layer that makes it very difficult for traditional chemotherapy drug techniques to penetrate for treatment.

“The other challenge we face is the pancreatic tumour doesn’t have many blood vessels, so it is very hard to get high doses of the drug directly to the tumour,” says Prof Moulton. “Also, when a whole-body dose of the cancer-treating drug is provided through an IV, you don’t actually know what percentage of that drug is getting to the tumour.” 

How the implant works

Prof Moulton says the technique they are exploring has the potential to make a huge difference to the way pancreatic cancer is treated.

The implant would be loaded with a required dose of the chemotherapy drug and inserted directly into the tumour through a minimally invasive endoscopic ultrasound. Once inserted, the medication can slowly leach out and work to shrink the tumour.

“By using the implant you will be overcoming the problem of getting the drug to the tumour because of the poor vascular nature of the area,” says Prof Moulton.

This site-specific approach could also potentially help eliminate some of the side effects patients experience when taking chemotherapy drugs, such as hair loss and nausea.

Improving survival rates

Prototypes of the implant have been developed through ACMD and the University of Wollongong Australia, with initial lab testing trials presently underway and showing promising results.

“This technique would enable us to remove pancreatic cancer tumours from patients that previously may not have been possible and potentially improve survival rates,” Prof Moulton says.

The project is being developed by a cross-disciplinary team who are participants in ACMD. The partnership team includes Swinburne University of Technology, the University of Wollongong Australia and Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute.