Cancer is a complicated illness. With so many different kinds along with every person’s unique body, it can be hard to diagnose and even harder to treat. This latest breakthrough treatment for rectal cancer certainly gives us hope, however, that nothing is impossible. Every patient’s cancer in this experimental drug trial disappeared. This is the drug that did it.
New Drug Cures All Patients’ Cancer In Experimental Trial
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center set out with a goal: To find a better way to treat colon cancer. Recently, the researchers completed a drug trial with 14 patients who all had locally advanced stage rectal cancer with a rare mutation. The mutation is called mismatch repair deficiency (MMRd). The doctors gave each patient an experimental immunotherapy treatment for six months. At the end of those six months, every single one of those patients’ cancer had disappeared. Six months later the patients had follow-up appointments and still, every single one of them was cancer-free. The drug had successfully put them all into remission, and they have been that way now for a range of six to 25 months. (1)
A New Type Of Immunology Treatment
The experimental drug is a type of immunotherapy drug called dostarlimab. It is made by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. The patients received a dose every three weeks for six months straight. It works by exposing the cancer cells, which have a mechanism to help hide them from our immune system. Once exposed, the body’s immune system then does the rest of the job.
“This new treatment is a type of immunotherapy, a treatment that blocks the ‘don’t eat me’ signal on cancer cells enabling the immune system to eliminate them,” CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus explained. “The treatment targets a subtype of rectal cancer that has the DNA repair system not working. When this system isn’t working there are more errors in proteins and the immune system recognizes these and kills the cancer cells.” (2)
Of course, the drug performed better in this small trial than any of the investigators working on it could have imagined. Dr. Agus says that having every single patient be cancer-free at the end of the trial, and specifically stay that way for months and even more than two years afterward, is remarkable. Not only remarkable, but he describes it as “unheard of”.
“Amazing to have every patient in a clinical trial respond to a drug, almost unheard of,” Dr. Agus said.“(this) speaks to the role of personalized medicine — that is identifying a subtype of cancer for a particular treatment, rather than treating all cancers the same.”
Big Results, Little Side Effects
Another incredible bonus about this therapy is that the researchers have seen no bad side effects in any of the 14 patients. Dr. Andrea Cercek, the principal investigator of the study, says that we are seeing a rise in rectal cancer rates among young adults. A treatment without the side effects of regular cancer treatments is huge.
“Surgery and radiation have permanent effects on fertility, sexual health, bowel and bladder function,” Dr. Cercek said.“The implications for quality of life are substantial, especially in those where standard treatment would impact childbearing potential.”
The only downside to this drug it seems, so far, is the cost. Dostarlimab comes with a pretty heavy price tag, selling at $11,000 US per dose. Naturally, this could be a big barrier for future patients who are not taking the drug as part of a trial and therefore have to pay for their treatments.
It is also important to note that this trial is still ongoing and is expected to include about 30 patients all-told. The researchers say that once they have completed the investigation with the entire group, they will have a better picture of how safe and effective the drug is. They will then continue to study the drug in a broader group of patients before it becomes commercially available.
Oncologist Hanna Sanoff reminds us that while these findings are exciting and promising, it is too early to say that we have discovered a “cure” for rectal cancer. It will be a few years before we know just how effective it is and whether or not the patients’ tumors will regrow. (3)
“Very little is known about the duration of time needed to find out whether a clinical complete response to dostarlimab equates to cure,” she says. “Despite these uncertainties, Cercek and colleagues and their patients who agreed to forgo standard treatment for a promising but unknown future with immunotherapy have provided what may be an early glimpse of a revolutionary treatment shift. If immunotherapy can be a curative treatment for rectal cancer, eligible patients may no longer have to accept functional compromise in order to be cured.”
Keep Reading: ‘Why I’m accepting my terminal cancer diagnosis at 30’
- “PD-1 Blockade in Mismatch Repair–Deficient, Locally Advanced Rectal Cancer.” NEJM. Andrea Cercek, M.D., et al. June 5, 2022.
- “Every patient in this experimental drug trial saw their cancer disappear, researchers say.” CBS News. Natacha Larnaud. June 8, 2022.
- “Every Single Patient in This Small Experimental Drug Trial Saw Their Cancer Disappear.” Science Alert. Peter Dockrill. June 6, 2022.