New drug aims to treat tough pancreatic cancer

University of Minnesota-created Minnelide has shown promise as research enters clinical trials.
Dr. Tara Krosch works in the University Medical School’s pancreatic cancer research lab in Moos Tower Wednesday. The lab is supervised by Dr. Ashok Saluja, professor and vice chair of research in the Medical School’s department of surgery.
October 15, 2010

More than 43,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed this year with one of the most aggressive cancers with very few treatment options — pancreatic cancer.

Very little is known about the causes of pancreatic cancer. However, the discovery of a protein that produces cancerous cells has led University researchers Ashok Saluja, Gunda Georg, and Selwyn Vickers to the drug Minnelide.

The drug comes from a Chinese herb used to treat arthritis, which researchers found stops the protein that creates cancerous cells, Saluja said. Minnelide was created to be soluble in water, and can be given via tablets or intravenously, he said.

A number of drug studies have been conducted with mice. While mice induced with pancreatic cancer survived 44 days without treatment, those given Minnelide are still alive — at 162 days now —and are not showing signs of cancer.

If Minnelide is successful in human clinical trials, it has the potential to increase life expectancy of pancreatic cancer patients exponentially, Saluja said.

 “I am optimistic it will work,” he said, adding he hopes human clinical trials will start within a year.

The average life expectancy of a pancreatic cancer patient is 6 months without treatment. With current treatments the life expectancy is increased by just a few months.

Vickers, a pancreatic cancer surgeon, commends Georg and Saluja for their efforts. He hopes Minnelide can be both therapeutic and safe for patients. While he said the discovery is important, he added that there is still a long way to go.

Saluja hopes the success of Minnelide in clinical trials will help in developing the drug for other cancer treatments as well.

Research on Minnelide is an example “that the University is taking initiative,” said Matt Palm, biochemistry sophomore and secretary of the University’s Biological Sciences Research Club.

 “I think that it is a really big part of the University,” he said. “I think that we have an impact in getting younger students interested in research so they can go and do these types of things.”

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