A new immune-boosting vaccine may help improve the odds of survival for people who suffer from pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest and most difficult-to-treat forms.

Early results show the pancreatic cancer vaccine improved survival rates from the disease from an average of about 63 percent one year after diagnosis to 88 percent. The percentage of pancreatic cancer patients treated with the vaccine who survived two years after diagnosis increased from 42 percent to 76 percent.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths, and less than 20 percent of people with the disease live up to five years after diagnosis.

Researchers say there is no widely accepted standard for treating pancreatic cancer, but surgical removal of the entire affected area is the only possibility of cure.

"Even though our results are preliminary, the survival rates are an improvement over most published results of pancreatic cancer treatment studies," says researcher Daniel Laheru, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, in a news release.

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Pancreatic Vaccine May Improve Survival Rates

In the study, presented this week at a cancer meeting in Philadelphia, researchers reported on the two-year results of a study of the experimental pancreatic vaccine in 60 people with the disease.

Researchers combined use of the vaccine with conventional surgery and postoperative chemotherapy and radiation. The vaccine uses irradiated pancreatic cancer cells that can no longer grow and are genetically altered to secrete a molecule that attracts the body’s immune cells to the site of the cancer.

Once lured to the tumor, the immune cells pick up additional antigens from the surface of the irradiated cells that help to identify and destroy any remaining active cancer cells in the patient’s body.

The pancreatic cancer vaccine is injected eight to 10 weeks after surgery, and four booster shots are given after chemotherapy and radiation.

"It is important that we continue to follow these patients to know how the treatment will work in the long term," says researcher Elizabeth Jaffee, MD, of Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, in the news release. "We're hopeful that these early results will hold true."

Researchers say pancreatic cancer strikes more than 30,000 Americans annually and about the same number will die each year.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Joint meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research/National Cancer Institute/European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer, Philadelphia, Nov. 14-18, 2005. News release, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.