Background: Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease and its patients typically have a short survival, usually marked by pain and rapid debilitation. The disease has been considered relatively chemoresistant, although many chemotherapy regimens have been described.
Methods: Clinical results with chemotherapy, since the first publication of response in 1960, were reviewed for efficacy and toxicity. Emphasis was given to prospective trials with adequate power and clear evaluation criteria and endpoints.
Results: Published response rates vary enormously in this disease, with rates in earlier single-institution trials tending to be much higher than those in studies with stringent response criteria, particularly recent cooperative group trials. Using stringent criteria, the upper limit of the objective response rate is approximately 20%. No convincing improvements in median survival can yet be attributed to chemotherapy. Few trials have measured quality of life, but symptomatic palliation rates may exceed objective response rates. Some low-toxicity regimens (such as those based on infusional 5-FU) yield response rates as high as some more toxic combinations.
Conclusions: Many early trials significantly overstate the efficacy of chemotherapy for patients with pancreatic cancer, apparently due to flexibility of response criteria. However, useful symptomatic palliation may occur even without an objective partial response. It is possible that slow resolution of the desmoplastic component of these tumors may underestimate tumor killing. Thus, quality of life is an important parallel endpoint (with survival and response) in chemotherapy trials in this disease.