A small US drug trial on 18 rectal cancer patients has led to astonishing results with cancer vanishing in every single patient, undetectable by physical exam, endoscopy and PET or MRI scans. The tumours completely disappeared in these patients, thanks to a revolutionary new drug, Dostarlimab.
These rectal cancer patients had faced exhausting treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and life-altering surgery that could result in bowel, urinary and sexual dysfunction, with some patients needing colostomy bags.
The new study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and published on June 5 in the New England Journal of Medicine, raising hopes for cancer patients and specialists everywhere.
Dr Luis A Diaz Jr of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, an author of the paper describing the results, which were sponsored by the drug company GlaxoSmithKline, said it is the first case ever in which a treatment completely eliminated a cancer in every patient.
“There were a lot of happy tears,” said Dr Andrea Cercek, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a co-author of the paper.
“Another surprise was that none of the patients had clinically significant complications,” said Dr Alan P Venook, a colorectal cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved with the study.
On average, one in five patients have some sort of adverse reaction to drugs like the one the patients took, dostarlimab, known as checkpoint inhibitors. The medication was given every three weeks for six months and cost about $11,000 per dose. It unmasks cancer cells, allowing the immune system to identify and destroy them.
While most adverse reactions are easily managed, as many as 3 per cent to 5 per cent of patients who take checkpoint inhibitors have more severe complications that, in some cases, result in muscle weakness and difficulty swallowing and chewing.
The absence of significant side effects, Dr Venook said, means “either they did not treat enough patients or, somehow, these cancers are just plain different.”
Dr Kimmie Ng, a colorectal cancer expert at Harvard Medical School, said that while the results were “remarkable” and “unprecedented,” they would need to be replicated.