Page last updated at 13:58 GMT, Monday, 10 March 2008

Pancreas cancer hope over surgery

Pancreatic cancer cell (Science Photo Library/Steve Gschmeissner)
Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to spot

A team of London surgeons have become the latest to offer state-of-the-art surgery for advanced pancreatic cancer.

It involves cutting away the tumour and portal vein - a major vessel near the pancreas - and replacing it with the jugular vein from the neck.

The team at London's Royal Free Hospital carried out their first operation using the technique - pioneered in the US - in December.

The female patient is now recovering well.

This technique is exciting as it enables us to offer a whole new group of patients the opportunity for surgery
Kito Fusai, surgeon

There is currently no treatment for pancreatic cancer that is so advanced, with most patients given just six months to live.

The surgery also removes the portal vein because pancreatic cancer often invades that part of the abdomen as it advances.

Those diagnosed in the earlier stages can sometimes be treated with chemotherapy or surgery, but of the 7,400 people who get it each year just 3% are alive five years later.


Surgeon Kito Fusai, who performed the first procedure with his colleague Dinesh Sharma, said the technique was exciting.

"If discovered early, before it has spread to other major organs such as the liver or lungs, the cancer may be treatable.

"However, currently only a small proportion of patients - around 10% - are suitable for surgery.

"The only treatment for the vast majority of patients is chemotherapy or palliative treatment.

"This technique is exciting as it enables us to offer a whole new group of patients the opportunity for surgery.

"We expect it will double the number of patients each year - potentially saving many hundreds more lives."

And he added: "Without this surgery the patient would undoubtedly have died, probably within six months or a year's time."

A team at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, Texas, has operated on 55 patients, with recent data showing encouraging survival rates.

Maggie Blanks, of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, said: "When tumours are close to the portal vein it precludes surgery so anything that overcomes that is a major step.

"But it is very early stages and this does not sound like it would necessarily help when the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas."

Sue Ballard, from the charity Pancreatic Cancer UK, said similar surgery was available at designated regional pancreatic cancer surgical centres throughout the UK.

She said: "The main issue is which patients get benefit from this technique and that is still debated by surgeons nationally and internationally.

"Once the tumour has encased the portal vein there is a risk the cancer is already in the blood system and so may spread elsewhere so systemic treatment with chemotherapy is still likely to be required."

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