Novel pancreatic cancer drug derived from a Chinese plant being tested in the laboratory

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Novel pancreatic cancer drug derived from a Chinese plant being tested in the laboratory

The October 17, 2012 issue of the prestigious journal Science Translational Medicine included an article about a compound derived from a Chinese plant, tested in preclinical models of pancreatic cancer. The study took place primarily at the University of Minnesota, and among the authors is Selwyn Vickers, MD, member of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s Emeritus Scientific Advisory Board. The issue of the journal also included a “Perspective” commentary piece, coauthored by Sunil Hingorani, MD, PhD, recipient of two research grants from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

The study describes the modification of a medicinal plant called Tripterygium wilfordii, or Thunder God Vine. An active chemical component of this plant is triptolide, which has been utilized as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. The research team modified triptolide to a form that can be dissolved in water, making it more easily broken down by the body, and named it Minnelide (combining the words Minnesota and triptolide).

The initial steps to testing whether a drug might be effective in the treatment of pancreatic cancer involve testing the drug in a laboratory setting. There are several ways to model the disease in the laboratory, including pancreatic cancer cells grown in dishes and various methods of inducing the disease in mice. In this study, the investigators were able to evaluate Minnelide carefully in multiple laboratory models of the disease. The growth of pancreatic cancer cells in a dish was shown to be blocked by Minnelide. Moreover, when these same cells were implanted into the pancreas of a mouse, the resulting tumor was much smaller upon treatment with Minnelide, and the mice had reduced spread of the tumor to other parts of their bodies. Although encouraging, results from these types of analyses are not sufficient to determine whether a drug might induce similar effects in patients.

To evaluate conditions more similar to human disease, the authors then implanted pancreatic tumor tissue samples directly from human patients into mice, treated those mice with Minnelide, and found similar results. Finally, mice that are genetically programmed to develop pancreatic cancer were evaluated. The disease in these mice is thought to mimic the characteristics of human disease. Treatment with Minnelide was also found to be effective at reducing both the rate at which pancreatic tumors formed and the spread of the disease in these animals, enhancing survival.

Although the results thus far seem promising, each laboratory model of the disease has both strengths and weaknesses in how well it behaves like human disease. Therefore, conclusions cannot be drawn until clinical trials take place in patients. The authors intend to embark on a Phase I clinical trial in the coming months, pending approval from the FDA.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network encourages all patients to consider clinical trials when exploring treatment options. For more information about ongoing clinical trials or any other questions about pancreatic cancer treatment or diagnosis, please contact a PanCAN Patient Services Case Manager toll-free at 877-272-6226 or by completing our contact form. PanCAN Patient Services Case Managers are available M-F 7am-5pm Pacific Time.

Click here for the abstract of the scientific article.
Click here for the abstract of the commentary about the article.