In battle against pancreatic cancer, grant-funded H-FIRE study offers hope

Only about 10 percent of patients survive as long as five years after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. 

Only about 10 percent of patients survive as long as five years after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. 

“Pancreatic cancer is very hard to treat,” said Irving Coy Allen, professor of inflammatory diseases in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s one of the top five deadliest cancers in the U.S. And it’s deadly because by the time you find out that you have a tumor, it’s usually metastasized. You can usually treat the local tumor, but how do you treat the metastatic lesions?”

The National Institutes of Health has awarded $2.6 million to a Virginia Tech team over five years for a study of high frequency irreversible electroporation (H-FIRE) for tumor ablation and immune system activation in cases of pancreatic cancer.

H-FIRE doesn’t bring the heat

Despite what its acronym might imply, H-FIRE does not apply destructive heat to cells, which can damage healthy cells while destroying cancer cells. Rather, H-FIRE applies nonthermal electrical pulses, which act to break down the cancer cells and cause them to release tumor antigens.

The antigens, proteins that differentiate tumors from other types of cells, then trigger an immune response that can also target the antigen in metastatic lesions elsewhere in the body, potentially leading to the reduction or elimination of cancer not only in the pancreas but everywhere it has spread.

Clinical trials and parallel study

While the H-FIRE study at Virginia Tech is being conducted in animal models, H-FIRE is being used in clinical trials on humans, targeting various organs. However, the pancreas presents several unique challenges that this study hopes to overcome.

The H-FIRE study is being conducted in parallel to a similar study using histotripsy, also led by Allen with some of the same co-investigators. Histotripsy employs focused ultrasound beams to create “microbubbles” in tumor cells that, when they burst, break down cancer cells and release tumor antigens for the immune system to engage.

Hokies at the helm

The research supported by the grant is a joint effort between the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, performing the animal model research, and the College of Engineering, developing the technology behind H-FIRE.

Allen is the principal investigator. Co-investigators include Sherrie Clark ’92, DVM ’96, professor of theriogenology and associate department head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences in the veterinary college; Chris Byron, associate professor of large animal surgery and department head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences; and Nick Dervsis, associate professor of oncology with the veterinary college and its Animal Cancer Care and Research Center in Roanoke. 

Virginia Tech’s expertise

“We are in a prime position to make a difference against cancer because we have the engineers with the College of Engineering and we have the animal expertise here at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine,” Allen said. “We have translational capabilities with our collaborations at the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C. We have close ties to Wake Forest’s medical school and their Comprehensive Cancer Center, and, of course, our own Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. We have collaborations with Carilion Clinic, moving some of these therapies into human trials. So, it’s really exciting at Virginia Tech. It gives us a really nice holistic approach because we have so much expertise within our university.”   

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