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Implant being developed to better treat pancreatic cancer cells


Swinburne University and the University of Wollongong research teams are exploring the use of a tiny implant that delivers chemotherapy directly into the tumour of a patient with pancreatic cancer. 

This implant could be the key to improving surgical outcomes for patients by shrinking the tumour so it can be safely removed.  

The universities are collaborating with the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery (ACMD), a collaborative, hospital-based biomedical engineering research centre at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. 

“This technique has the potential to transform the way pancreatic cancer is treated,” Swinburne Biomedical Electromaterials Science professor and ACMD project lead Simon Moulton said. 

The implant works by loading the required doses of chemotherapy inside, then inserting the device directly into the tumour through a minimally invasive endoscopic ultrasound. Once inserted, the medication slowly leaches out to shrink the tumour. The amount of chemotherapy needed is determined by the tumour’s size and patient-specific factors. 

Treating pancreatic tumours is challenging for several reasons.  

“The size of some pancreatic tumours prohibits any surgical removal because the tumour may be encroaching to other parts of the body, which makes surgery risky,” Moulton said. 

Pancreatic tumours also have a dense, fibrotic layer that makes it difficult for traditional chemotherapy techniques to penetrate. 

“Another challenge is pancreatic tumours don’t have many blood vessels, which means it’s hard to get high doses of the cancer-treating drug directly to the tumour,” Swinburne research fellow Dr Lilith Caballero Aguilar said. 

“And when a whole-body dose is provided through an IV, you don’t actually know what percentage of that drug is getting to the tumour.” 

Caballero specialises in the Drug Delivery field and designing novel biomaterials for drug delivery systems.  

“Using the proposed implant will overcome the problem of getting the drug to the tumour. Not to mention, this site-specific approach could help eliminate some of the side effects patients experience when taking chemotherapy drugs,” Caballero said. 

First generation implants developed at the University of Wollongong and ACMD are showing promising results. The Swinburne implants will be evaluated at the University of Wollongong in suitable pancreatic cell culture models from September. 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, pancreatic cancer is tipped to be the second leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide by 2030. It also has one of the lowest survival rates. In 2021, the five-year survival rate for a person diagnosed with the disease was just 10 per cent. 

“This technique would enable us to remove pancreatic cancer tumours from patients where previously this may not have been possible – and potentially improve survival rates,” Moulton said. 

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