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Radioactive Bacteria Kill Pancreatic Metastases

April 24, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Nuclear Medicine
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Bacteria engineered to infect cancer cells—but not healthy cells—and deliver tumor-killing radioisotopes have shown remarkable success in treating pancreatic cancer in mice, according to a study by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York.

The technique appears particularly effective in killing metastatic cells, which are what make pancreatic cancer so deadly. Average five-year survival rates for victims of exocrine pancreatic cancer, by far the most common type, range from 14 percent with a stage IA diagnosis to 1 percent at stage IV, according to the American Cancer Society.

Claudia Gravekamp, PhD, co–senior author of a study about the treatment, said:

We’re encouraged that we’ve been able to achieve a 90 percent reduction in metastases in our first round of experiments. With further improvements, our approach has the potential to start a new era in the treatment of metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Gravekamp is associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Einstein. She was quoted in a college news release. The study was published online Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used an attenuated form of the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium. The body’s immune system normally makes quick work of the weakened bacteria, but the microenvironment of tumors suppresses the immune response, allowing the bacteria to survive inside cancer cells.

Ekaterina Dadachova, PhD, the study’s co–senior author, suggested attaching a radioisotope to the bacteria. Dr. Dadachova is professor of radiology (specializing in nuclear medicine) and of microbiology and immunology at Einstein. “We chose rhenium,” she said, “because it emits beta particles, which are very effective in treating cancer. Also, rhenium has a half-life of 17 hours, so it is cleared from the body relatively quickly, minimizing damage to healthy tissue.”

Using the radioactive bacteria to treat mice with metastatic pancreatic cancer reduced the metastases by 90 percent without causing noticeable side effects. The researchers think they could improve the effectiveness by tinkering with the treatment schedule, using higher doses of radiation, or piggybacking other anti-cancer agents onto the bacteria.

“Our goal is to clear 100 percent of the metastases,” said Dr. Gravekamp, “because every cancer cell that stays behind can potentially form new tumors.”

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Related seminar: UCSF Abdominal and Pelvic Imaging: CT/MR/US

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