Early-stage drug delivery implant targeting pancreatic cancer tumors showing promise

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are making progress on an implantable drug delivery device that has the potential to dramatically improve the outcomes of pancreatic cancer patients, a disease with a one-year mortality rate of 75%--a stat that hasn't changed much in the last 40 years, according to the university.

The device enables localized delivery of a four-drug cocktail of chemotherapy meds dubbed Folfirinox, which is normally delivered intravenously. The problem is, the toxicity of systemic delivery makes unviable for many patients, even though it shrinks or halts tumor growth in almost a third of patients.

The team's device delivers the cocktail into tumors using iontophoresis, or a local electrical current, and increased the amount reaching the tumor by a factor of three over intravenous delivery, at least in mice, according to a recent study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper was reviewed by MIT drug delivery guru Robert Langer.

Last year, the team used the device to deliver the less potent drug gemcitabine to mice, and achieved similar results. The researchers planted electrodes on either side of pancreatic tumors along with a reservoir of the chemotherapy to drive the drug into the tumor.

"We use the device to hit the primary tumor hard," Dr. Jen Jen Yeh, an associate professor at UNC School of Medicine's department of surgery and pharmacology, said in a statement about the latest breakthrough. "It's an exciting approach because there is so little systemic toxicity that it leaves room to administer additional drugs against cancer cells that may have spread in the rest of the body."

UNC chemistry professor Joseph DeSimone said in a statement that the team is aiming to get the device into clinical trials within the next several years. Shrinking or halting tumor growth would enable more patients to receive tumor removal surgery. It is considered the best chance for cure of the disease, but only 15% of pancreatic cancer patients have operable tumors, UNC says.

"The beauty of this device is that all of the drug delivery is focused locally, with low delivery to the rest of the body," said James Byrne, lead author of the study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and medical student at the UNC School of Medicine, in a statement. "If this works in humans, we hope the device can be used as a plug-and-play approach to delivering the latest, most promising drug regimens for patients who have a dire need for new and better treatments."

San Diego's OncoSec is also researching the use of electricity to deliver drugs directly into cancer tumors, though its device is not an implant. The company's investigational combination product consists of a syringe-like applicator with needles that delivers a DNA-based therapy across the cell membrane via electroporation. 

- read the release
- read the paper abstract