New immunotherapy treatment uses 3-pronged attack to combat pancreatic cancer

WASHINGTON — Patients with operable pancreatic cancers might soon have an improved treatment option. Johns Hopkins researchers have revealed that a three-pronged immunotherapy treatment, which is safe for people, shows promise in increasing cancer-killing immune cells.

Doctors administered the treatment two weeks prior to cancer-removal surgery. The innovative procedure combines the pancreatic cancer vaccine GVAX with the immune checkpoint therapy nivolumab and the anti-CD137 agonist antibody treatment, urelemab. The findings suggest a potential breakthrough in treating this deadly disease.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have been collaborating on an ongoing platform trial since 2015. This trial focuses on the effectiveness of immunotherapy treatments administered both before (neoadjuvant) and after (adjuvant) surgery for pancreatic cancer patients.

In the recent segment of this trial, 10 participants received the combined treatment. Observations indicated an average disease-free survival of 33.51 months and an average overall survival of 35.5 months. These durations, though higher than previous segments of the trial, which only involved the pancreatic cancer vaccine and its combination with nivolumab, were not statistically significant due to the small number of participants.

However, tumors from patients receiving the combination treatment showed an increased presence of cancer-fighting immune cells when compared to those from patients treated with just the vaccine or the combination of the vaccine and nivolumab.

Cancer Treatment with Red Pills, Injections and Syringe. (© tashatuvango –

“The results suggest that this therapy combination warrants further study in a larger clinical trial,” says Dr. Lei Zheng, senior study author and co-director of the Pancreatic Cancer Precision Medicine Center of Excellence and professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a media release.

Dr. Zheng adds there are dual aims for giving the pancreatic cancer treatments in the two weeks leading up to surgery. First, it allows the immunotherapies to teach the patient’s immune cells how to respond to tumors so they can continue surveillance later if the cancer recurs. Second, it enables investigators to see, by evaluating the tumors removed during surgery, how well the tumors respond to the treatment.

Researchers are eager to continue with this trial, as a fourth segment focusing on anti-interleukin-8 neutrophil-blocking antibodies in pancreatic tumors is currently in progress.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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