DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Pancreatic cancer is considered one of the most difficult cancers to treat, with a five-year survival rate of only 11 percent.

Researchers at Duke University are trying to change that. They’re studying a new potential treatment. The research is still in the very early stages, but the results appear promising, so far.

Jeffrey L. Schaal and Duke Biomedical Engineering Professor Ashutosh Chilkoti recently published a study on a potential new method for treating pancreatic cancer.

The new treatment would deliver radiation directly to the tumor using a gel-like substance. That would be combined with chemotherapy.

Schaal, who is now the senior vice president of Diagnostics at Solve Therapeutics Inc., said it’s often difficult to get drugs to pancreatic tumors with traditional treatments

“Tumors are like forts,” he explained. “You have the tumor cells themselves, which is what we’re trying to target and kill, but they tend to erect a lot of barriers and trenches that actually obstruct with the blood vessels that enter the tumor.”

“Think of it as a chainlink fence, or wall, you erect as a defensive barrier to protect the tumor cells,” he added. “These are incredibly dense in pancreatic cancer.”

Normally that can prevent drugs or radiation from effectively targeting the tumor, but Schaal explained that the new method is designed to bypass that.

“Because we’re implanting the radiation inside the tumors and it’s going to be continuous, we could actually break down some of these delivery barriers,” he said.

In mice, he says the method was extremely effective.

“When we went through the literature and investigated, and I think we investigated over 1,100 different therapy combinations, no one was having these results,” he said. “That’s when we realized okay, these results are actually kind of extraordinary.”

Their results are already drawing attention, but Schaal cautioned that this research is still in the very early stages.

“We have actually been contacted by a number of patients, patient advocates, even clinicians looking for clinical trials they can get their family members or their patients on, and we’re having to have these really difficult conversations,” Schaal said. “As researchers, we have to tell them we really appreciate their interest and we’re really trying to push this forward, but there isn’t a clinical trial we can appoint them to and enroll them in because this is still several years out from being a clinical reality.”

There are still more studies necessary before the treatment can be tried in people. If all goes well, researchers hope human trials could take place in two to three years.

“We can’t just push it forward as fast as we’d like to,” said Schaal. “We want to make sure all steps are followed.”

Although it’s still not clear whether this treatment will eventually become a breakthrough in treating pancreatic cancer patients, Laurel Engel, who lost her father to pancreatic cancer when she was a child, hopes researchers will soon find a way to help.

“There need to be more treatment options,” she said.

Engel, who now works with children whose parents are battling cancer, is hopeful that pancreatic cancer patients will one day have more effective treatments.

“My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when I was 10 years old,” she recalled. “They felt they had caught it pretty early, but it was still stage three.”

Her dad died after a two-and-a-half-year battle.

“I would love that survival rate to be much longer,” Engel said.