Vitamin D could be a treatment for pancreatic cancer

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Vitamin D has been known for promoting strong bones, regulating blood pressure and even improving one's mood.

But could it be the key to fighting one of the most deadly cancers?

U.S. researchers are testing the impact of adding Vitamin D to the treatment regimen for some pancreatic cancer patients.

76-year-old Daryl Fair retired from teaching American politics to travel and spend time with family. But earlier this year, doctors treating him for pneumonia discovered something unexpected.

“It was a small tumor on the head of the pancreas," says Fair.

Doctors caught Daryl's cancer very early, unusual for pancreatic cancer. Patients often have no early symptoms.

Because he caught it early, Daryl qualified for a clinical trial, testing the impact of Vitamin D on treatment.

"This is not Vitamin D that you can get at the drug store," says Dr. Jeffrey Drebin of Penn Medicine.

Researchers found that this potent Vitamin D inactivates the body's cells called stromal cells. Stromal cells protect and feed pancreatic tumors.

"Vitamin D acts on these cells to make them quiescent," says Dr. Drebin.

If the stromal cells aren't working, researchers say chemotherapy drugs will reach the tumors and, hopefully, wipe out the cancer.

For now, patients are receiving Vitamin D three times a week.

"To get the levels, the high levels that we think we need within the tumor, we're giving it as an iv as the initial trial of this," says Dr. Peter O’Dwyer of Penn Medicine.

"I think studies like this are the things that are eventually going to make cancer readily curable," says Dr. Fair.

And bring hope to patients facing a tough battle.

Researchers say they would like to develop an oral form of the synthetic Vitamin D, so patients in future trials could have the treatment at home.

They say the results of this trial may also impact treatment for other stubborn tumors.

Doctors Drebin and O'Dwyer are part of a dream team of collaborators being funded by Stand-up to Cancer.

BACKGROUND: According to the American Cancer Society, 48,960 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States this year. Of those, 40,560 people will die from the disease. The pancreas is an organ that sits right behind the stomach. It is shaped somewhat like a fish with a wide head and a pointed tail. The pancreas is usually about 6 inches long and 2 inches wide in adults and has two different types of glands: exocrine and endocrine glands. The exocrine glands create pancreatic juice which helps you digest your food. The juice is released into the intestines, and without it, the food you eat would not be absorbed. More than 95 percent of the cells in the pancreas are in the exocrine glands. A smaller percentage of the cells in the pancreas are endocrine cells. The endocrine cells form small clusters known as islets which make hormones such as insulin and glucagon. These hormones are released directly into the blood to help regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer can be found in exocrine cells and endocrine cells of the pancreas but both form different types of tumors.

ENDOCRINE AND EXOCRINE TUMORS: Exocrine tumors are the most common type of pancreas cancer. About 95 percent of cancers in the exocrine cells are known as adenocarcinomas. These cancers can begin in the ducts of the pancreas and can also develop from the cells that make up pancreatic enzymes. Endocrine tumors make up less than four percent of all pancreatic cancers. These cancers are usually known as pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors or NETs. NETs can be benign or malignant, and can look alike under a microscope. As a result, diagnosis may only become clear once the tumor has spread outside of the pancreas. Jeffrey Drebin, MD, Chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania told Ivanhoe "Unfortunately, most people with pancreas cancer are diagnosed when the disease has already spread and are not able to have a surgical cure."

NEW TECHNOLOGY: In a clinical trial where patients' pancreatic tumors were removed and studied, Dr. Drebin and other researchers found that vitamin D makes the cancer cells inactive. Researchers particularly studied how stroma, which fuels the tumor and feeds it, creates a physical barrier stopping chemo from getting in. They then found that potent vitamin D doesn't kill these cells but allows them to stop producing substances that feed the pancreas cancer. This is not vitamin D that you can buy at a drug store, but has been tested in animals and is now being tested in humans.
(Source: Jeffrey Drebin, MD)


Steve Graff