‘Electrochemotherapy’ shows promise as potential treatment for pancreatic cancer

Treatment of pancreatic cancer might be enhanced by zapping tumours with electricity alongside drug treatments, according to a project at University College Cork.

Researchers at CancerResearch@UCC have found that a technique known as electrochemotherapy causes pancreatic cancer cells to become more sensitive to three widely used anti-cancer drugs.

Electrochemotherapy delivers short, intense pulses of electricity to a tumour, which temporarily increase how porous cancer cells are, allowing more drugs to flood inside.

The technique is currently used to treat skin cancers and some breast cancers, which can easily be reached by the electrodes needed to deliver the pulses of electricity.

With funding from the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (PCRF), Dr Patrick Forde, who led the research at the CancerResearch@UCC, is investigating whether it can be used for tumours in the pancreas, deep inside the body.

He and his colleagues have shown in laboratory tests that when the drugs – Bleomycin, Cisplatin or Oxaliplatin – were delivered alongside the electrical pulses to human and mouse pancreatic cancer cells, the cancer cells died.

The results also revealed that the cells died in a specific way that may have implications for how the immune system responds to the cancer cells after the drug treatment.

“It’s important for us to know how the cells are dying so we can develop treatments that can harness a patient’s immune system to target malignant cells elsewhere in the body,” said Dr Forde. “If the cancer cells die in the right way, they can release signals into the blood stream that ‘train’ the immune system to recognise other cancer cells.

“We found that the electrochemotherapy with these drugs causes the pancreatic cancer cells to die in a way that releases signals into the body that may alter the immune response,” said Dr Forde, whose research is published in the journal Cancers. “We now need to do work to find out what impact these have on the immune response – whether they might dampen it or enhance it.”

If Dr Forde and his team find that electrochemotherapy with these drugs triggers a body-wide anti-cancer immune response it could help to ensure that tumours do not reoccur and could reduce the risk of aggressive secondary metastatic cancers.

Dr Forde hopes to conduct further work examining exactly what effect electrochemotherapy has on the immune response.

He added: “The technology for delivering electrochemotherapy to the pancreas in a patient is still under development, but it is important we unravel the biology to see how these treatments can be refined.”