Illustration of the liver and pancreas.

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — UCLA scientists said they have unlocked an important mechanism that greatly improves the effectiveness of chemotherapy in battling pancreatic cancer.

According to the study — published online in the Journal of Clinical Investigation — the combination of a peptide with a nano cancer drug formulation bolsters the treatment’s ability to kill cancer cells, leading to a better outcome.

The researchers also confirmed the key role of a peptide — an extremely small protein — in regulating vascular access of the nanoparticle to the cancer site.

The overall five-year survival rate for people with pancreatic cancer is just 6 percent, and there is an urgent need for new treatment options. More than 80 percent of pancreatic cancer diagnoses occur too late for surgery, making chemotherapy the only possible treatment.

The discovery is the result of a two-year study co-led by Drs. Huan Meng and Andre Nel, members of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and the UCLA California NanoSystems Institute. The findings demonstrate how the delivery of chemotherapy to pancreatic cancer can be improved significantly through the use of smart-designed nanoparticle features.

Because nanocarriers may not always reach their intended target in sufficient numbers, a key challenge for scientists is how to help nanoparticles travel to and be retained at tumor sites.

The research was supported by the National Cancer Institute and the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.