The results of a drug trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 18 rectal cancer patients are now completely free of the disease.
The handful of patients were part of a study conducted at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in Manhattan and resulted in a success rate of 100 percent. Each patient was under the age of 50.
“I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr, the author of the paper, told The New York Times.
The drug used in the study is called dostarlimab and was designed to retrain the body’s autoimmune system so it will attack certain tumors and mutations, which each patient in the trial possessed. All had been told their options were chemotherapy, radiation, and in some cases, complex surgery, but at the conclusion of the trial they were all relieved to find out they no longer needed any of those treatments, at least for now.
“There were a lot of happy tears,” Dr. Andrea Cercek, an oncologist at MSKCC, told the outlet.
Participant Sascha Roth remembered scrambling to pack in preparation to temporarily relocate from Washington, D.C. to New York where she would undergo weeks of radiation therapy, but a phone call from oncologist Cercek changed her plans and possibly her life.
“Dr. Cercek told me a team of doctors examined my tests,” recalled Sascha. “And since they couldn’t find any signs of cancer, Dr. Cercek said there was no reason to make me endure radiation therapy.”
“It’s incredibly rewarding,” says Dr. Cercek, “to get these happy tears and happy emails from the patients in this study who finish treatment and realize, ‘Oh my God, I get to keep all my normal body functions that I feared I might lose to radiation or surgery.'”
The medication was administered every three weeks for six months at a cost of around $11,000 per dose.
Cercek’s co-investigator at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Diaz said “Immunotherapy has proven successful in treating a subset of patients with colon and rectal cancer that has metastasized, meaning spread to other tissues.”
“An MMRd tumor develops a defect in its ability to repair certain types of mutations that occur in cells. When those mutations accumulate in the tumor, they stimulate the immune system, which attacks the mutation-ridden cancer cells,” said Diaz.
“The immunotherapy shrank the tumors much faster than I expected,” Cercek said. “My research nurse Jenna Sinopoli would tell me, ‘The patient has only received one treatment and already they’re not bleeding anymore and their terrible pain has gone away.’”
Cercek recalls, “Patients came to my office after just two or three treatments and said, ‘This is incredible. I feel normal again.’”
“One young man and his family just sat in stunned silence when I told them his cancer had disappeared,” recalled Cercek. “Then they thanked us over and over.” She continued, “A young woman looked at the screen during an examination and asked, ‘Where is the tumor?’ ‘It’s gone,’ we told her.”
Cercek concluded, “The most exciting part of this is that every single one of our patients has only needed immunotherapy. We haven’t radiated anybody, and we haven’t put anybody through surgery.” She added, “They have preserved normal bowel function, bladder function, sexual function, fertility. Women have their uterus and ovaries. It’s remarkable.”
In an editorial that accompanied the study, Dr. Hanna K. Sanoff of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center described the results as “small but compelling.”
“Very little is known about the duration of time needed to find out whether a clinical complete response to dostarlimab equates to cure,” Sanoff wrote.
Nevertheless, the results seem promising for a wider array of patients as each involved in the trial has remained cancer-free, the earliest patients in the study for two years so far.
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