While the study was limited to a particular type of cancer, it's still considered a potential breakthrough and is being heralded as the first of its kind.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 7, 2022. It has since been updated.
In a study conducted at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, 18 rectal cancer patients who took the same drug found that their cancer completely vanished. Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr., the lead author of the paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, stated that this was the first in the history of cancer. While this was a small trial sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, the results are promising and open up a world of possibilities. Some of those who benefited from the study were even moved to tears. Every single patient is in total remission as reported by The New York Times.
🚨 Breaking #ASCO22 News: A new study from MSK experts @AndreaCercek and Luis Diaz demonstrates remarkable results when leveraging #immunotherapy alone to beat back #RectalCancer that had not spread to other tissues. https://t.co/IsbfWavTiE (1/3)— Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (@MSKCancerCenter) June 5, 2022
According to Dr. Diaz, no other study in which a treatment completely obliterated cancer in every patient exists. He affirmed, "I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer." Dr. Alan P. Venook, a colorectal cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, concurred. He claimed that a complete remission in every single patient is "unheard of." Furthermore, as a result of the treatment, none of the patients had clinically significant complications. Approximately one in five patients have some sort of adverse reaction to drugs such as the one the patients took—dostarlimab—known as a checkpoint inhibitor.
“It’s incredibly rewarding 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 normal body functions that I feared I might lose to radiation or surgery.” @AndreaCercek #ASCO22 @NEJM @ASCO (2/3) pic.twitter.com/ElFHDbsjBO— Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (@MSKCancerCenter) June 5, 2022
Dr. Venook hypothesized that the researchers may have not treated enough patients. He also suggested the cancer treatment might have been "just plain different." Over the course of six months, patients were treated with a dose of dostarlimab every three weeks. Each dose costs about $11,000. The study was inspired by Dr. Diaz's clinical trial, led in 2017, funded by Merck. Eighty-six people with metastatic cancer took checkpoint inhibitor pembrolizumab for up to two years. Tumors shrank or stabilized in about one-third to one-half of the patients and they lived longer. Tumors vanished in 10% of the trial’s participants. So, for this study, researchers selected patients who were at a stage much earlier in the course of the disease, that is, before their cancer had a chance to spread.
Sascha Roth, then aged 38, was the first patient. She is a runner and helps manage a family furniture store. She first noticed some rectal bleeding in 2019 but otherwise felt fine. Her gastroenterologist informed her that she had cancer after performing a biopsy on a tumor found during a sigmoidoscopy. She said, "I completely melted down." Roth was scheduled to start chemotherapy at Georgetown University but chose to participate in the clinical trial instead. After the trial ended, she planned to move to New York for radiation, chemotherapy and possibly surgery. However, she received unbelievable news.
"There were a lot of happy tears."— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 5, 2022
It was a small trial, just 18 rectal cancer patients, every one of whom took the same drug.
But the results were astonishing. The cancer vanished in every single patient. https://t.co/mYnlfUkKAs
"We looked at your scans," Dr. Andrea Cercek, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a co-author of the paper, told her. "There is absolutely no cancer." Even two years on, Roth remains cancer-free. She did not need further treatment. Remarkably, she was only one of 18 patients who experienced similar results. Dr. Cercek shared, "There were a lot of happy tears." There is immense potential to extend the study to even more patients.