Ask most people what the pancreas does, and few may have a ready answer. But many people are aware that tumors of the pancreas are among the hardest to treat—a fact well known from news stories about the deaths of celebrities such as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
San Jose, CA-based startup RenovoRx is preparing to market a fluid delivery catheter that may some day offer physicians better options for getting drugs to hard-to-reach places in the circulatory system. The RenovoRx catheter is designed to selectively direct fluids, such as drug infusions, to specific outer branches of the blood vessels that serve organs such as the pancreas.
Under current practice, many cancer drugs are injected into a vein, from which they can spread throughout the entire body. A commonly used chemotherapy drug, gemcitabine, is approved for pancreatic cancer. But the drug, when injected, doesn’t penetrate well into the pancreas, says RenovoRx board member Una Ryan.
“If you give a high enough dose to affect the cancer, you might kill the patient before killing the cancer,” Ryan says.
But if the drug could be confined to the region of the tumor, side effects to the rest of the body might be minimized, Ryan says.
Depending on future test results, this may become one of the possible uses of RenovoRx’s catheter, which was inspired by the challenge of treating pancreatic tumors, but could have a wide range of applications. Ryan, an active member of Silicon Valley angel investors’ groups, says the RenovoRx catheter might be used to direct radiological imaging fluids to specific organs for diagnostic purposes. It might also allow doctors to more safely send high concentrations of pain medication to specific sites in the body, such as the pancreas.
“Pancreatic cancer is very painful,” Ryan says. “It’s such a horrible disease that you want to do as much as you can palliatively.”
Ryan introduced RenovoRx to investment groups, and the company recently raised more than $1 million. Human trials have not yet been done with the device, but this year, the company hopes to work with clinicians interested in trying the catheter in patients.
The germ of the idea behind the specialized endovascular catheter came to RenovoRx co-founder Ramtin Agah when he was helping other doctors grapple with a challenging procedure involving the pancreas, says RenovoRx CEO Marta Gaia Zanchi.
“He was amazed by the uniqueness and complexity of the vasculature specific for this organ,” Zanchi says. Agah, a cardiologist at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, CA, co-founded RenovoRx in 2009.
The twists and turns of the blood vessels serving the pancreas are part of the challenge of delivering cancer drugs there, because the pattern can be very different from one person to another.
The pancreas is a long, leaf-shaped organ behind the stomach and near the spine. People with diabetes in the family may be familiar with the organ’s role in the body. Specialized cells in the pancreas produce insulin and other hormones that regulate blood levels of glucose. Other cells in the pancreas produce enzymes that affect the digestion and use of nutrients.
Pancreatic cancer made up only 3 percent of new US cancer cases in 2013, but it was the 4th leading cause of US cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. The five-year US survival rates for two much more common cancers, breast cancer and prostate cancer, have reached 90 percent or higher in this century. For pancreatic cancer, the five-year survival rate is 6 percent.
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