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A breakthrough drug trial astonished doctors by curing rectal cancer in each patient

This is a promising development on the way to a less painful treatment.

A breakthrough drug trial astonished doctors by curing rectal cancer in each patient
Medical illustration of colorectal cancer. ChrisChrisW/iStock

The results of a small-scale immunotherapy drug trial conducted by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) cured all 12 people with rectal cancer at the time of publishing the study, surprising the doctors. This groundbreaking development offers new hope for the treatment of rectal cancer. 

The medication called dostarlimab was already in use to treat endometrial cancer, but its efficiency against rectal cancer tumors had never been tested so far. Therefore, this first clinical investigation, which tested the drug against rectal cancer and concluded that it vanished tumors in every patient, is a breakthrough in the history of cancer studies.

“I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” told Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr. of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and one of the authors of the paper told The New York Times.

The results of the study were published Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

No evidence of tumors

During the experimentation process, the patients were given dostarlimab every three weeks for six months, and chemoradiotherapy and surgery were set to follow in case of tumors returned. But in the end, there was no trace left from the tumors to be seen through MRI scans, PET scans, endoscopy, and biopsy.

“Dr. Cercek told me a team of doctors examined my tests,” explains Sascha Roth, the first patient enrolled in the trial, in a press release. “And since they couldn’t find any signs of cancer, Dr. Cercek said there was no reason to make me endure radiation therapy.”

So far, almost three-quarters of patients have suffered mild or moderate side effects, such as rash, itching, tiredness, and nausea. Besides that, none of them has experienced regrowth in cancer, with the median follow-up being one year and some patients remaining cancer-free for two years.

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A promise for a less painful treatment

For now, the ongoing trial includes 14 - and counting - patients according to MSKCC, all of whom had tumors with genetic mutations called mismatch repair deficiency (MMRd). However, the so-far results are still promising since such tumors are less responsive to chemotherapy and radiation.

The treatment of rectal cancer was a challenging process that could include severe methods such as chemotherapy, radiation, and sometimes even a life-altering surgery, leading to bowel, urinary, and sexual dysfunction in some patients. But the good thing is that the patients engaged in this study have avoided both of these surgeries and their related adverse effects thus far.

"The standard treatment for rectal cancer with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can be particularly hard on people because of the location of the tumor," says Andrea Cercek, a medical oncologist at MSK and the lead author of the study.

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Scientists stated that even though the results are promising, the study still needs to be expanded to large-scale experiments. Any possible application of the medication needs to be investigated.

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