Doctors find combining two powerful anticancer drugs can significantly boost survival from pancreatic cancer.
Adding in capecitabine tablets increased survival rates
The disease has a poor outcome - most die within six months of diagnosis because symptoms may not appear until the cancer is very advanced.
Chemotherapy can help, but doctors have questioned what the best drug combination might be for such patients.
Cancer Research UK scientists say adding capecitabine to standard gemcitabine therapy improves survival.
Giving the two drugs together meant that after a year, one patient in four was still alive, compared to only one in five who received gemcitabine alone, the early trial results show.
The GEMCAP trial ran between May 2003 and January 2005 and involved 533 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer who received either gemcitabine (Gemzar) alone or gemcitabine plus capecitabine (Xeloda).
Doctors at the 13th European Cancer Conference in Paris this week heard about the interim results of the study.
Compared with the patients receiving gemcitabine alone, those receiving the combined therapy were more likely to survive longer than six months.
The one-year survival rates for gemcitabine and capecitabine was 26% compared to only 19% with gemcitabine alone.
Data from England and Wales suggests only 13% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer currently survives for a year.
Professor David Cunningham, from the Institute of Cancer Research at the Royal Marsden Hospital London and lead investigator of the trial, said: "This trial is starting to show we can offer pancreatic cancer patients precious extra time with a new treatment that can be taken in tablet form.
"Gemcitabine and capecitabine should now be considered one of the standard options for the treatment of patients with this disease."
The government's drugs watchdog NICE has already approved the use of gemcitabine on the NHS for treating advanced pancreatic cancer.
Capecitabine is a newer tablet version of a chemotherapy drug called 5FU that has been around for many years and is given intravenously. Capecitabine is already used to treat bowel and breast cancer.
NICE is reviewing its guidance on treating advanced pancreatic cancer.
Kate Law, head of clinical trials at Cancer Research UK, said: "Currently, survival for patients with advanced pancreatic cancer is often measured in months.
"These results show hopeful promise of adding valuable time to a person's life."
Professor John Neoptolemos, from the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, said: "These new data are very exciting and give new hope for pancreatic cancer patients who in general have a very short life expectancy."
Sue Ballard, founder of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: "Not only has it shown increased survival but the treatment is very patient-friendly as it doesn't involve long periods of time spent in the cancer day unit.
"We certainly hope that it will now become available for all suitable patients."
Maggie Blanks, of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, said: "Any improvements in the treatment of pancreatic cancer are to be welcomed, given the grim prognosis for the disease. A few extra weeks of life are very precious, as many of our supporters will testify.
"But we are still talking about an overall 5-year survival rate of less than 3% - the lowest survival rate of all cancers. Much more research is needed. Pancreatic cancer accounts for 5% of cancer deaths but receives only 1% of research funds. We are calling for a fairer allocation of research funds."