Treating pancreatic cancer may come from a two-pill combination

Surviving pancreatic cancer might not seem like a moonshot anymore.

That's thanks to a two pill combination that are known for helping other diseases - one that treats malaria and one that treats melanoma.

"When you combine these drugs together, you have a synergistic killing of pancreatic cancer cells," said Conan Kisney, a physician scientist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. "We have treated one patient thus far and we did have quite a remarkable response from him."

Most people diagnosed with the disease don't live very long. The survival rate in 2018 was 7-8 percent; one of the lowest rates among any form of cancer.

Pancreatic cancer has been a buzzword in early March. Last Wednesday, Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy! announced he had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. In the short video posted online, he delivered the news, against a backdrop of hope that he could beat it.

"Normally the prognosis for this disease is not very encouraging, but I'm going to fight this," Trebek said in a video to viewers. "I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease."

The new two-pill treatment doesn't promise anything. But the marriage of the two antidotes is showing signs of success.

"It's very exciting for us, but I think we should be cautious," Kisney said, "sometimes we do test these things and we get one single responder who responds well to the therapy."

That response was spotlighted in 66-year-old Gordon Chamberlain, who was diagnosed with the same disease as Trebek over a year ago. 

"It had metastasized into my liver and lungs," Chamberlain said. "The basic chemotherapy was not going to work. At that point, that was all there pretty much was."

The treatment is now in clinical trial. Gordon, who is taking part in the trial, is proof of its potential success. Kisney said that they administered the same treatment to another patient, who had been given weeks to live. He survived for eight months.

Not only is the treatment showing signs of success, but it's also less toxic, showing fewer side effects.

"We feel like it could definitely be a breakthrough," said Kisney.