The world may soon be able to get rid of a dreaded disease that is feared for the sheer number of lives it claims — cancer. For the first time, a drug trial has shown 100% eradication of cancer in patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, US.
The trial, albeit small in scale, has brought hopes that cancer can be removed completely without going through long and painful chemotherapy sessions or surgeries. According to The New York Times, the drug — dostarlimab — was administered to 12 rectal cancer patients, who seemed to have recovered completely as the disease could not be detected by physical exam, endoscopy, positron emission tomography (PET) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
CANCER STATS ACROSS THE GLOBE
The results were “astonishing” and have ushered in hope for billions across the globe. According to the World Health Organisation, nearly 10 million people died in 2020. This amounted to cancer being responsible for nearly one in six deaths.
Breast cancer accounted for most of the new cases (2.26 million) while lung cancer came in a close second (2.21 million), followed by colon and rectum cancer patients (1.93 million) in 2020. If further trials on a larger scale show similar results, we could be heading towards a cancer-free world.
Dr Luis A Diaz Jr from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in a recent paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine said he was not aware of any other study, in which a treatment “completely obliterated a cancer in every patient”. “I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” Dr Diaz said.
Colorectal cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, Dr Alan P Venook, who was not a part of the team that conducted the study, also said that this was a first. “A complete remission in every single patient is unheard of,” he said.
THE DOSTARLIMAB STUDY
The patients had almost given up hopes after failing to recover after going through gruelling chemotherapy and radiation sessions. Some of them even underwent “life-altering” surgeries, resulting in bowel, urinary, and sexual dysfunction. Some of them even had to use colostomy bags.
Not expecting their cancerous tumours to subside, they agreed to be part of the dostarlimab trial. They even expected their current treatment modes to continue. But to their pleasant surprise, they were taken off the painful chemotherapy and radiation sessions and also told that there would be no need to go under the knife.
Another surprise in store for the patients was the complete absence of significant post-treatment complications, which are usually associated with other forms of cancer treatment. Moreover, there were no signs of recurrence of cancer in the patients until 25 months from the end of the trial, sponsored by the drug company GlaxoSmithKline.
Oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a co-author of the study Dr Andrea Cercek said: “There were a lot of happy tears.”
HOW THE DRUG WORKS
The patients were administered dostarlimab every three weeks for six months. The medication aimed to unmask cancer cells, allowing the body’s immune system to identify and destroy them naturally.
Such drugs, known as ‘checkpoint inhibitors’, usually have some kind of adverse reaction in 20% of patients who undergo the treatments. Nearly 60% of patients have severe complications, including muscle weakness. But no negative reaction was seen in the patients involved in the dostarlimab study.
Rectal cancer in the patients was locally advanced — tumors that had spread in the rectum and, in some cases, to the lymph nodes but not to other organs.
COST OF TREATMENT
The drug, if approved for mass use in future, is not going to come cheap as the trial doses cost $11,000 each or nearly Rs 8.55 lakh per dose.
‘FURTHER TRIALS REQUIRED’
Dr Hanna K Sanoff of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, who was not involved in the study, said it is not clear if the patients are fully cured, despite the results being “compelling”.
“Very little is known about the duration of time needed to find out whether a complete clinical response to dostarlimab equates to cure,” Sanoff wrote in an editorial accompanying the paper.
(With inputs from The New York Times)