Pancreatic cancer kills nearly 95 percent of those diagnosed with the disease, and effective therapies for the remain elusive.

Now, a team of researchers from Rambam Medical Center in Haifa are working to develop a new treatment method that may one day help increase survival rates and help better explain how the cancer strain has proven so deadly.

In 80 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer, cancerous cells spread throughout the body through the nervous system. Known as nerve invasion, once the cancer has infiltrated other areas of the body, it is usually untreatable and a patient’s prognosis is extremely grim.

The Rambam team is investigating the ways this nerve invasion occurs in pancreatic cancer in an attempt to stop it and save lives.

“Treatment directed against nerve invasion could prevent cancer spread, prolong survival, and reduce morbidity,” Dr. Ziv Gil, Head of the Applied Cancer Research Laboratory at Rambam and lead researcher on the project, said.

The team is currently focusing its efforts on a possible interaction between the large white blood cells found in tissues and bone marrow (macrophages) and pancreatic cancer cells, which may lead to nerve invasion.

The team thinks that the macrophages, which act as a first line of defense in nerve inflammation, actually get overrun by the pancreatic cells, which then allows the cancer to spread rapidly along the nerves throughout the body.

“Our long-term goal is to understand the mechanism that triggers progression of pancreatic cancer and to develop the means to inhibit it,” Gil explained, adding the research done so far has already yielded valuable clues.

“It is anticipated that the data obtained here….will provide meaningful advancement of current knowledge in the field of cancer biology and for the benefit of cancer patients,” Gil stressed.

He also said that once the mechanism for nerve invasion is better understood, it may prevent deaths from other forms of cancer that result in nerve invasion.

“It is also expected that the results will be equally applicable to other neuroinvasive cancers,” he said, noting the possible benefit to those suffering from “head and neck, gastrointestinal, hepatobiliary, genitourinary, and prostate malignancies.”