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Swim Across America-St. Louis funded study brings researchers to cusp of breakthrough



PancreaSwim 2022 2tic cancer is among the deadliest forms of cancer, claiming the lives of 88% of patients within five years of diagnosis.

Long-established therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy are only modestly effective. Pancreatic tumors also have been stubbornly resistant to immunotherapy, which revolutionized treatment for other cancers by activating the body’s immune system to attack malignant cells.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, however, may be on the cusp of a breakthrough in their work to enlist a patient’s immune system in the fight against pancreatic disease. With generous support from a Swim Across America (SAA) grant, David DeNardo, PhD, professor of medicine at WashU, conducted a clinical trial at Siteman Cancer Center to assess the efficacy of two drugs in igniting an immune response in pancreatic cancer patients.

Early findings from the Swim Across America study were promising and positioned DeNardo to expand his research with a $2.8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Without the funding from Swim Across America, the NIH grant simply would not have happened,” DeNardo said. “With funding from SAA, we opened our clinical trial early, and this early data was absolutely critical in our success. Reviewers of the NIH grant directly commented that the progress on this SAA trial was a strength in our application.”

With the SAA grant, Washington University investigators evaluated two experimental drugs in the treatment of 14 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer. They analyzed the patients’ tumors before beginning the drug treatment and again after treatment and surgical removal of the tissue. They compared their findings to data from 24 patients who were not treated with the experimental drugs.

Researchers found that patients who received the drugs experienced a substantive increase in dendritic cells —key immune cells that pick up, process, and present antigens to T cells. The process unleashes T cells to wage an assault on pancreatic cancer cells.

“If we don’t have to wait every time we have a good idea, it changes everything,” DeNardo said. “This grant allowed us to try novel approaches in patients years earlier, learn from the results, and move forward faster.”

Moving forward faster means DeNardo is now able to evaluate the same experimental drugs from the SAA study in combination with radiation therapy as part of the new, expanded NIH-funded trial. Patients in this trial will not undergo surgery.

DeNardo’s team also will continue to study the tumor tissue from patients in the SAA study.

“With the NIH funding, we hope to find that this anti-tumor immunity can be further exploited and have longer-term effects in combination with radiation therapy,” DeNardo said. “We want to find out what the therapeutics can do, then integrate them with other strategies to learn what can develop from the combinations.”

Swim Across America St. Louis brings together hundreds of swimmers and volunteers of all ages and abilities every year to raise money for cancer research, clinical trials and patient programs at Siteman Cancer Center. This year’s event is on Saturday, August 26, on Alpine Lake at Innsbrook Resort, about an hour west of St. Louis. Since the open swim began in 2016, participants have raised more than $1.3 million to support research at Siteman Cancer Center.