Chinese tree bark could help treat pancreatic cancer

Published: Feb. 6, 2019 at 5:39 PM EST
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Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive, most difficult types of cancer to treat. But a compound that’s been used for centuries in Chinese medicine is giving researchers hope.

Michael Gilkerson doesn’t miss a day on his treadmill. He says it gives him strength and motivation after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more than two years ago.

“I’ve never told my mom this, but I was close to giving up,” he said.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the toughest cancers to treat. Only 6 to 8 percent of patients survive five years after the time of diagnosis.

“We know that pancreatic cancer is going to be the second leading cause of death in the United States within the next 10 years, so we’re desperate for new treatments,” oncologist Dr. Christos Fountzilas said.

But a compound derived from Chinese tree bark could provide an answer. It's called FL118, and it is being developed at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York.

“Our drug, either used alone or in combination with current therapies, can completely eliminate the tumor,” associate oncology professor Dr. Fengzhi Li said.

It's based on a substance that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries and has been shown, so far, to be very tolerable and nontoxic.

“It’s killing cancer cells and its helping our treatments be more effective in killing cancer cells, even if these cancer cells become resistant to treatment,” Fountzilas said.

Michael, who’s currently cancer-free, says this new drug is providing hope.

“If just one doesn’t have to go through what I went through, it's worth it,” he said.

Researchers say they hope to begin clinical trials of the compound within the next year.




REPORT: MB #4535

BACKGROUND: Pancreatic cancer is a fast spreading cancer, caused by a mutation in the DNA. It creates tumors; with the pancreas sending enzymes to help digest your food, it can easily spread to other organs in the body almost undetected. Unless there is a family history, or you have pancreatic cysts, most people will not catch it in the early stages. Over 50,000 people will be diagnosed this year with the disease, and over 45,000 will die from it in 2019. This cancer could become the second leading cause of death in the next 10 years in the US. The main cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, but smoking, diabetes and obesity have been linked as a cause. Some of the symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer are loss of appetite, unintended weight loss, pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back, blood clots and fatigue.


DIAGNOSING: The best way to check for the cancer is through imaging. Doctors can look at CT scans, MRIs, and PET scans to better see the internal organs. They can also use a scope to perform an endoscopic ultrasound. Blood tests and a biopsy are also options to look at the cancer. From there, the cancer is staged zero through four. Stage 0 means that the cancer is just in the pancreas and stage IV means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.


NEW TECHNOLOGY: Besides surgery, patients can participate in chemotherapy, ablation, using extreme cold or heat to get rid of the tumors and embolization treatments, which is trying to block the blood flow to the cells causing them to die. Researchers are developing a newer option to treat the cancer from Chinese tree bark. This is nontoxic and very tolerable. According to Dr. Christos Fountzilas, they are hoping that they can pair it will current treatments in order to improve the efficiency. Dr. Fountzilas called the bark “a master regulator of multiple resistance mechanisms. They want to take the next couple of years to perform different clinical trials to make sure that it safe, and that it can be added to other treatments. In pre-trials, the drug has shown that tumors model have restored sensitivity when paired with existing treatments.

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