Pancreatic cancer is killing more Europeans than ever and death rates are rising, according to new research.
The number of deaths has almost doubled in the past three decades and it now kills more than 95,000 – and rising making it the continent’s “deadliest” form of the disease.
It kills more than 9,000 people a year in the UK alone.
It has the lowest average survival time after diagnosis of all cancers – just four-and-a-half months.
Known as ‘the silent killer’, symptoms are hard to identify – making it difficult to catch early when life-saving surgery can be carried out.
Yet despite patients losing 98 per cent of their remaining expected healthy life expectancy the illness receives less than two per cent of all cancer research funding.
Professor Markus Peck of United European Gastroenterology (UEG) in Vienna said: “If we are to take a stand against the continent’s deadliest cancer, we must address the insufficient research funding; that is where the European Union can lead the way.”
Pancreatic cancer has now overtaken breast cancer to make it the third most lethal type – behind lung and bowel, say experts.
Mortality rates in the EU increased by five per cent between 1990 and 2016.
It is the highest increase of any of the EU’s top five cancer killers. Lung, breast and bowel cancer have seen significant reductions over the same period.
Famous people who have died from pancreatic cancer include Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze, Alan Rickman and Sir John Hurt.
Scientists believe the key to turning the tide lies in targeting gut bacteria – the body’s own ecosystem of 10 trillion bugs that has been linked to a host of illnesses.
Currently the EU’s top three cancer killers are those of the lung, bowel and pancreas – followed by breast and prostate tumours.
The study published by UEG to coincide with World Pancreatic Cancer Day calls for improving prognosis with the development of microbiome drugs.
Pancreatic cancer expert Professor Thomas Seufferlein said: “Research looking at the impact of the microbiome on pancreatic cancer is a particularly exciting new area, as the pancreas was previously thought of as a sterile organ.
“Such research will also improve our understanding of the microenvironment in a metastatic setting and how the tumour responds to its environment. This will inform the metastatic (spread) behaviour and ultimately alter disease progression.”
After forty years of limited progress in pancreatic cancer research new treatment options could finally be on the horizon.
Researchers are investigating how changing the pancreas’ microbiome may help to slow tumour growth and enable the body to develop its own ‘defence mechanism’.
The microbial population of a cancerous pancreas has been found to be approximately 1,000 times larger than that of a non-cancerous pancreas.
Studies have shown removing bacteria from the gut and pancreas slowed cancer growth and ‘reprogrammed’ immune cells to react against cancer cells.
This development could lead to significant changes in clinical practice as removing bacterial species could improve the efficacy of chemotherapy or immunotherapy.
It offers hope doctors will finally be able to slow tumour growth, stop spread and ultimately change the disease’s progression.
Prof Seufferlein said: “With continued investment in pancreatic cancer research, we should have new, important findings within the next five years and, hopefully, find that targeting the microbiome as well as tumour cells will significantly improve treatment outcomes and reduce death rates.”
Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of the pancreas – an organ in the abdomen that lies behind the lower part of the stomach.
It secretes enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help regulate the metabolism of sugars.
Pancreatic cancer often has a poor prognosis even when diagnosed early – and spreads rapidly.
It is seldom detected in its early stages – which is a major reason why it’s a leading cause of cancer death.
Added Prof Peck: “Whilst medical and scientific innovations have positively changed the prospects for many cancer patients, those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have not been blessed with much clinically meaningful progress.
“To deliver earlier diagnoses and improved treatments we need to engage now in more basic as well as applied research to see real progress for our patients in the years to come.”
The NHS said those aged 50 to 80, are overweight or obese, have other health conditions such as diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, stomach ulcer and stomach infection Helicobacter pylori infection, or are heavy drinkers are at greater risk of the disease.
In about a tenth of cases pancreatic cancer is inherited.