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Barcelona hospital uses pioneering treatment for first time on pancreatic cancer

Vall d'Hebron successfully treats three patients with radiofrequency ablation as part of international study


11 December 2018 07:39 PM


ACN | Barcelona



The Vall d'Hebron University Hospital has for the first time in Spain used radiofrequency ablation to treat locally advanced pancreatic cancer, considered to have one of the worst prognosis of all tumors affecting this organ.

This cancer cannot be operated on with traditional surgical techniques and the only effective treatment has been palliative chemotherapy. Yet, in radiofrequency ablation a needle is inserted into the center of the tumor to apply temperatures of 80ºC, thus ablating the cancer cells.

So far, Vall d'Hebron has successfully performed the procedure on three patients, as part of an international, multicentric study aimed at evaluating the efficacy of this pioneering form of surgery. The hospital is the only one in Spain chosen for the PELICAN clinical trial.

While radiofrequency ablation is used to treat other cancers, it has never been tried on the pancreas because of the risks associated with the application of high temperatures, given that it is surrounded by veins and arteries that are vital for the organism and duodenum.

"The study has crossed this boundary and we've shown it can be carried out safely," said doctor Elizabeth Pando, from the Hepato-biliopancreatic and transplant surgery service, and researcher of the Vall d'Hebron Research Institute (VHIR), on Tuesday during the announcement of the surgical procedure.

Besides traditional surgery to treat locally advanced pancreatic cancer, other treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy are also ruled out "because the adenocarcinomas are hidden inside the stroma [tissue], which is a network of cells that protect and nourish the tumor cells," said the head of the surgery service and the VHIR, doctor Ramón Charco.

With the stroma acting as an impenetrable barrier to surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy, pancreatic cancer has a very poor prognosis. "The challenge is to develop new techniques to bypass this barrier and get to the tumor," doctor Charco added.

Pancreatic cancer is the third cause of death from neoplasm - abnormal and excessive growth of tissue- in the world and it is expected to become the second cause of death by cancer in 2019. In Catalonia, between 1,200 and 1,300 pancreatic cancers are detected each year, and near to 7,000 in Spain as a whole. About 40% are currently not operable but could become so thanks to this technique.

The results of the study will be published in 2021. "If it is confirmed that this therapy is efficacious for locally advanced pancreatic cancer, we will have found a technique that will allow a better prognosis of this malign tumor," said Charco, who also warned that the study is still only in an experimental phase.


  • Doctor Joaquim Balsells head of pancreatic surgery speaks to a patient with pancreatic cancer who has used a new pioneer treatment on December 11 2018 (by Laura Fíguls)

  • Doctor Joaquim Balsells head of pancreatic surgery speaks to a patient with pancreatic cancer who has used a new pioneer treatment on December 11 2018 (by Laura Fíguls)