A new treatment for pancreatic cancer could soon be used to help extend the lives of Scottish patients suffering the disease.
The drug Abraxane – also known as nab-paclitaxel – has been licensed for use in the UK after trials showed it helped patients live longer.
Experts and campaigners welcomed the launch of the drug, which it is hoped will be recommended for use by NHS Scotland in the coming months.
More than 700 people a year in Scotland are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, with a similar number of deaths annually.
It is one of the most difficult cancers to treat, with patients often diagnosed at a late stage, by which time there are few treatment options.
In those diagnosed with advanced disease, life expectancy can be as little as three to six months. The cancer was highlighted recently after TV soap Coronation Street featured a storyline in which the character Hayley Cropper decided to take her own life rather than face a painful death from the disease.
Despite the high death toll for pancreatic cancer, few new treatments have been identified in the last ten years.
But research last year showed that when Abraxane was used in combination with another cancer treatment – gemcitabine – the drug helped increase survival from 6.7 months to 8.5 months compared to using gemcitabine alone.
Further results then demonstrated the injectable treatment could increase life expectancy by an average of 8.7 months.
One-year survival rates rose from 22 per cent to 35 per cent and at two years they doubled from 4 per cent to 9 per cent, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year.
Professor Jeff Evans, director of the Institute of Cancer Sciences and professor of translational cancer research at Glasgow University, said: “The results of the nab-paclitaxel study are a welcome additional option for patients with pancreatic cancer.
“Treatment options for advanced disease have been very limited for more than a decade.
“Therefore, nab-paclitaxel, which can improve survival in this disease, marks a step forward in late-stage pancreatic cancer treatment.”
Abraxane works by taking the traditional chemotherapy treatment paclitaxel and wrapping it in tiny shells of albumin – a protein that the tumour can recognise as food.
Once inside the tumour, researchers believe the drug could act as a Trojan Horse, releasing the chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells. Abraxane has already been approved for use in patients with advanced breast cancer.
The drug, which costs £600 a month, has now been submitted by its makers Celgene for consideration by the Scottish Medicines Consortium, with hopes that patients will be allowed access to it as soon as possible.
Ali Stunt, founder of Pancreatic Cancer Action, said: “The launch of Abraxane is a much-needed addition in the treatment of metastatic pancreatic cancer and could really benefit eligible patients in the UK.
“This news will be a welcome advance for patients who are at a stage in their life when time is at an absolute premium.”
Alex Ford, chief executive of Pancreatic Cancer UK, added: “Our support line assists patients and carers with questions around treatment and care on a daily basis.
“With so few treatment options available, we know they want access to new and effective treatments such as Abraxane. Therefore, the launch of this medicine is greatly welcomed.”
Case study: ‘My body needs a break after six months of chemotherapy’
Andrew Luck is one of many patients with pancreatic cancer desperate to try new treatments to help combat the disease.
The 42-year-old paramedic, who lives in Lesmahagow, South Lanarkshire, was diagnosed with the disease in November 2011. He now hopes that following its licensing, Abraxane will be made available to NHS patients in Scotland.
After being diagnosed, Mr Luck had treatment to shrink the tumour. After that was successful, he had a ten-hour operation to remove the cancer.
“I went back to work but unfortunately four months later I started experiencing some discomfort and now have some rogue cancer cells in my peritoneum which are being treated with chemotherapy.
“I’ve just had the best part of six months of chemotherapy so the doctors said my body needs a break.”
Mr Luck said after waiting to see what effect the treatment had had, it was possible he may benefit from being given Abraxane in future.
He said: “It is what my doctor has recommended and as I’m in the medical profession myself I have read the reports, and I would like to be treated with Abraxane.”