Swayze's death highlights need for better pancreatic cancer treatments

Although Patrick Swayze finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer Monday, the star of blockbuster movies "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost" had in a sense already beaten the odds. The 57-year-old star died at home with his family after battling one of the deadliest cancers for 20 months -- more than three times longer than the average six-month survival rate for the advanced stage of cancer he had.

Pancreatic cancer first affects the tissues of the pancreas and often has a poor prognosis, even when diagnosed early, often leading to death. It typically spreads rapidly and is seldom detected in its early stages because signs and symptoms may not appear until the cancer has metastasized, making surgery impossible. It is a leading cause of cancer death. The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be 42,470 new cases of pancreatic cancer in 2009 and 35,240 deaths.
There are currently no standard screening tests for pancreatic cancer, making it even more difficult to fight this fatal disease. Once diagnosed, however, the cancer can be divided into stages depending on how localized or widely spread the cancer is and whether or not it can be surgically removed. Swayze's cancer was in stage IV, meaning the cancer had spread to distant parts of his body.

Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Options can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, targeted drugs and participation in clinical trials, but the results are rarely very encouraging. Eli Lilly's (LLY) Gemzar is most commonly used; Genentech's Tarceva is another, with clinical trials usually recommended. Swayze's pancreatic cancer treatment included aggressive chemotherapy and an experimental drug called vatalanib, developed by Novartis (NVS) and Schering-Plough (SGP).

Obviously, more needs to be done to combat the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. "In the past year a tremendous amount of momentum has been building in the pancreatic cancer research community to further scientific progress," PANCAN writes in a statement after Swayze's death. Another celebrity, Apple's (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs, is a well known survival of the cancer. He had a rare but far less aggressive type.

There are several clinical trials in different stages these days for pancreatic cancer treatment and detection. Some trials are also looking at treatment vaccines for patients following a tumor surgery to prevent the disease from coming back. So far, many clinical trials have failed. Regenreon and Sanofi-Aventis (SNY) announced just last Friday they stopped a late-stage study of the pancreatic cancer drug candidate aflibercept because patients were not surviving significantly longer than the those in the placebo group.

So while cancer drugs seem to be next on Big Pharma's agenda, it seems that pancreatic cancer has proven quite tough to crack despite many efforts. Earlier this year, President Obama's 2010 budget included $6 billion for cancer research after he vowed to find a way to find a cure for cancer in our lifetime. For Swayze, who told Barbara Walters in an interview in January how much he wanted to live, these efforts have not produced results soon enough.

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