Every year, millions of people die from cancer. According to the World Health Organization, cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, claiming 10 million lives in 2020, or 1 in 6 deaths during that year.
For a long time, cancer patients had to endure expensive, grueling, and life-altering treatments. Many times, these treatments find success. But sometimes, the chances of cancer recurring in patients are high despite receiving all the treatments.
Dostarlimab, an experimental drug, cured 18 rectal cancer patients. Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr. of New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center published these findings in the New England Journal of Medicine in which he described it as the first time that has happened in the history of cancer.
Dostarmilab is an experimental immune checkpoint inhibitor drug made of lab-made molecules that act as substitute antibodies that are used to treat endometrial cancer. Instead of attacking cancer cells directly, dostarlimab exposes the cancer cells to allow the immune system to identify and destroy them.
Cancer treatments using dostarlimab usually cost about $11,000 per dose and are given every three weeks for six months. On average, 1 in 5 patients may experience adverse reactions from receiving this treatment. Most complications are manageable, but 3-5% of patients have more severe complications, which can cause muscle weakness and difficulty in swallowing and chewing.
Despite the downsides of the drug, the oncologist Dr. Luis Diaz led a team of doctors to conduct a clinical trial using dostarlimab. Dr. Cercek, Dr. Diaz’s co-author, noted that this dostarlimab trial would allow patients to avoid grueling chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
The team encountered setbacks before the trial began. Dr.Diaz asked companies that make checkpoint inhibitors if they can sponsor a small clinical trial. The companies turned him down claiming that the procedure is too risky. “It is very hard to alter the standard of care,” Dr. Diaz said. “The whole standard-of-care machinery wants to do surgery.”
Finally, the team found their luck when a small biotech firm named Tesaro, which was later bought by GlaxoSmithKine, agreed to sponsor the clinical trial.
During the clinical trial, 18 patients diagnosed with rectal cancer received the experimental drug every 3 weeks for 6 months. Following the dostarlimab treatment, the patients underwent grueling and life-altering treatments including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery, which could cause complications.
Fortunately for the test subjects, the results were incredible. Six months after the dostarmilab clinical trial, the tumors were gone and never reemerged. The doctors even performed physical exams, PET scans, MRI scans, and endoscopies to identify traces of tumors or cancer cells but they found nothing.
The patients no longer required further treatments and appear to have remained cancer-free even after 2 years since the clinical trial. Aside from getting rid of cancer, the patients experienced no extreme side effects or complications during and after the clinical trial.
Dr. Andrea Cercek, Dr. Diaz’s co-author of the paper and fellow oncologist, described that “There were a lot of happy tears,” when the patients knew they were cancer free.
Sacha Roth, the first patient for the clinical trial, stated that the results were so unexpected that her family didn’t believe her at first.
For the first time in history, an experimental drug seems to have cured people of cancer.
What Do Other Doctors Say About It?
The news astounded many doctors. Dr. Kimmie Ng, a colorectal cancer expert at Harvard Medical School, said that the results were “remarkable” and “unprecedented.”
Other doctors like Dr. Hanna Sanoff of the University of North Carolina noted that “The results are cause for great optimism provided what may be an early glimpse of a revolutionary treatment shift.”
But despite all the great news surrounding it, some doctors raised different concerns. Dr. Alan P. Venook from the University of California said the following regarding the absence of significant side effects: “either they did not treat enough patients or, somehow, these cancers are just plain different.”
Aside from amazement at the breakthrough, Dr. Hanna Sanoff noted in her editorial that the research was compelling but is still small and added that it is not clear if the patients are cured.
“Very little is known about the duration of time needed to find out whether a clinical complete response to dostarlimab equates to cure,” she adds.
What’s the Next Step?
Experts in cancer research state that, while the results of the clinical trial were promising, these still need to be replicated and expanded. This is to find out if dostarlimab would be useful beyond the specific application done in the trial.
After all, the trial only included patients that were all in similar stages of their cancer, where it was still in the rectum and had not spread to other organs yet.
This news sparks hope for all cancer patients in the world, especially rectal cancer patients. And for that, let us hope and pray that more and more breakthroughs will be discovered for the benefit of all cancer patients.
Kolata, G. (2022, June 5). Small Study on Rectal Cancer Results in Remission in Every Patient. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/05/health/rectal-cancer-checkpoint-inhibitor.html
Lovett, S. (2022, June 8). All cancer patients in drug trial appear to be cured for ‘first time in history.’ The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/colorectal-cancer-drug-trial-dostarlimab-cured-b2096225.html
Pfeiffer, S. (2022, June 7). NPR Cookie Consent and Choices. NPR. https://choice.npr.org/index.html?origin=https://www.npr.org/2022/06/07/1103545361/cancer-drug-experimental-rectal-chemotherapy-surgery-treatment-immunotherapy
World Health Organization. (2022, February 3). Cancer. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cancer