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, undetectable by physical exam, endoscopy, PET scans or M.R.I. scans.
Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr. of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, an author of a paper published Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine describing the results, which were sponsored by the drug company GlaxoSmithKline, said he knew of no 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.
Dr. Alan P. Venook, a colorectal cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved with the study, said he also thought this was a first.
A complete remission in every single patient is “unheard-of,” he said.
These rectal cancer patients had faced grueling treatments — chemotherapy, radiation and, most likely, life-altering surgery that could result in bowel, urinary and sexual dysfunction. Some would need colostomy bags.
They entered the study thinking that, when it was over, they would have to undergo those procedures because no one really expected their tumors to disappear.
Another surprise, Dr. Venook added, was that none of the patients had clinically significant complications.
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.