New research is offering some hope in the fight against pancreatic cancer.

The answer is nuclear medicine. And the power to find cancer and deliver therapy all at the same time. Theranostics, combining therapy and diagnostics, is a promising approach to cancer treatment.

While some people fear the idea of using radioactive isotopes as a therapy in the body, Julie Sutcliffe PhD. knows the power for good.

“You have a molecule, same molecule with a different piece of radioactivity on it, so one is for imaging for diagnostics, one is for therapy for treatment,” she said. “So theranostics combine the two words together.”

After working as a researcher, a troubling scan of her own brought the UC Davis professor to her current life’s mission.

“I was diagnosed in 2005 with breast cancer,” she said.

Since she needed chemotherapy and radiation to kill her cancer, she knew the side effects.

“My breast surgeon happened to be doing pancreatic cancer research,” she said.

The idea of offering a treatment for pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms of cancer, without those dreaded consequences drew her in.

“The thing about theranostics is it’s a small amount of drug but that’s all the radioactivity,” she said. “Patients don’t feel sick or have all the usual side effects they do with normal chemotherapy.”

The marriage between therapeutics and diagnostics begins with a PET scan using targeted molecular imaging agents honing in on cancer receptors. In a 20 year mission, Sutcliffe and her team identified one radioactive drug to diagnose the cancer and another to deliver therapy to cancer cells.

“You say ‘OK, I can see your tumor,” she said, “But then you switch out that bit of radioactivity and not only I see it. Now I can treat it.”

At the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging annual meeting, a powerful picture of progress was shown, the image captured the therapy and the award for image of the year.

“We are seeing patients on that 30-day scan where the disease hasn’t grown,” she said. “So that is a big step forward for pancreas cancer patients.”

The next step is larger trials. Theranostics is also now being used as a chemotherapy alternative for breast, prostate and lung cancers.

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