Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare—it's the third-leading cause of cancer death. It's what killed Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze, and Sally Ride.
The pancreas is located in the middle of a person’s belly, surrounded by other vital organs like the liver and stomach. This both makes it extremely hard for surgeons to remove the tumor and easier for it to metastasize and spread. Chemotherapy—which sends toxic drugs throughout the body to reach the tumor site—is still often the only option, and it’s not even very effective because pancreatic tumors have few blood vessels to take up the drugs. Survival rates have barely improved in 40 years.
"To me, it seems very counterintuitive to have a whole body treatment to target a specific organ," says Laura Indolfi, a researcher at the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center and Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, and now CEO of a new biotech startup, PanTher Therapeutics.
Indolfi has developed a simple new device to deliver drugs straight to the pancreatic tumor, bypassing the rest of the body. It’s a flexible piece of plastic that looks a little like Band-Aid. Surgeons can simply place it directly top of the tumor, parachuting the drugs right to their destination via a catheter—making them more effective and less destructive to the rest of the body.
"It’s a very engineering way to solve the medical problem," she says. "It’s not science-fiction innovation."
So far, the device has only been tested on mice which were implanted with tumors from real patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. From the animal results, she says that after one month of treatment, the mice tumors were 12 times smaller than in mice that were treated with drugs through their blood vessels. PanTher Therapeutics is now preparing a submission to the FDA to start the initial safety testing in people.
She hopes that FDA approval will be relatively swift, since the drug itself is already on the market, and suggests it could be available to patients within five years. Eventually, she says, PanTher Therapeutics could partner with pharmaceutical companies to retest drugs that failed clinical trials because they were too toxic to patients through traditional delivery methods.