Two decades of research toward the treatment of locally advanced and metastatic pancreatic cancer: Remarkable effort and limited gain
Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is an aggressive malignancy that is diagnosed at the locally advanced or metastatic stage in approximately 80% of cases. Relative to other tumor types, progress in the treatment of this disease has been painfully slow. While agents targeting DNA repair have proven successful in a subset of patients, the majority of PDACs do not exhibit validated molecular targets. Hence, conventional chemotherapy remains at the forefront of therapy for this disease. In this review, we study two decades of efforts to improve upon the gemcitabine backbone – 67 phase II and III trials enrolling 16,446 patients – that culminated in the approvals of gemcitabine/nab-paclitaxel (Gem/NabP) and FOLFIRINOX. Today, these remain gold standards for the first-line treatment of locally advanced unresectable and metastatic PDAC, while ongoing efforts focus on improving upon the Gem/NabP backbone. Because real world data often do not reflect the data of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), we also summarize the retrospective evidence comparing the efficacy of Gem/NabP and FOLFIRINOX in the first-line setting – 29 studies reporting a median overall survival of 10.7 and 9.1 months for FOLFIRINOX and Gem/NabP, respectively. These values are surprisingly comparable to those reported by the pivotal RCTs at 11.1 and 8.5 months. Finally, there is a paucity of RCT data regarding the efficacy of second-line therapy. Hence, we conclude this review by summarizing the data that ultimately demonstrate a small but significant survival benefit of second-line therapy with Gem/NabP or FOLFIRINOX. Collectively, these studies describe the long journey, the steady effort, and the myriad lessons to be learned from 20 years of PDAC trials to inform strategies for success in clinical trials moving forward.