UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center
The University of New Mexico Cancer Center has achieved the coveted “comprehensive” designation from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), putting it in a league with an elite group of institutions that provide the very highest level of cancer care.

The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is taking aim at one of the deadliest cancers in the world with a new clinical trial that could help more people undergo surgery to remove pancreatic tumors.

The new clinical trial uses an aggressive treatment approach to pancreatic cancer, combining the latest in chemotherapy and radiation treatment with immunotherapy, a novel treatment which harnesses the body's immune system to help fight cancer. Surgically removing tumors is the only way to cure pancreatic cancer.

“The hope is that the combination of the most potent chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy will help make patients who were previously considered non-surgical able to undergo curative surgery," says UNM oncologist Gregory Gan, MD, PhD, the trial’s principal investigator.

Pancreatic cancer remains one of the deadliest cancers worldwide. In the United States, it accounts for only 3 percent of all diagnosed cancers but it causes almost 7 percent of all cancer deaths. A pancreas cancer diagnosis often comes after age 50 and after the cancer has spread, making it difficult to remove surgically.

“Only 20 percent of patients ever make it to surgery, which is the only way to cure someone of this cancer,” says Itzhak Nir, MD, a UNM cancer surgeon who specializes in cancers of the liver, pancreas and other digestive system organs. Nir says that fewer than 5 percent of people whose tumors cannot be removed surgically survive for five years or more.

Only a few other academic medical centers are offering the trial nationwide. In New Mexico, the trial is conducted in partnership with the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance. 

“This clinical trial uses innovative therapies and a unique approach,” says Olivier Rixe, MD, PhD, who oversees clinical trials at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We are one of the few centers to offer this clinical trial and one of very few centers that can combine the technologies that this trial requires.”

The trial combines the potent chemotherapy regimen FOLFIRINOX and pinpoint-accurate stereotactic body radiation treatment with an immunotherapy drug called algenpantucel-L from NewLink Genetics. FOLFIRINOX and stereotactic body radiation have been studied separately, and the studies showed that each helped people with pancreatic cancer become candidates for surgery. The clinical trial’s strategy uses all three treatments to shrink pancreas tumors enough to make surgery possible for more people.

Previous studies have shown FOLFIRINOX to shrink pancreas tumors prior to surgery. It’s used routinely for metastatic pancreatic cancer. Stereotactic body radiation is a newer type of radiation therapy which delivers higher doses of radiation to the tumor but spares the surrounding tissue. The experimental drug algenpantucel-L trains the immune system to recognize pancreatic cancer cells.