Sunday, September 25, 2022

Will this drug cure cancer?

| June 28, 2022 1:00 AM

It’s early days yet, but a small clinical trial at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has produced shockingly hopeful results: All 18 patients cured.

That’s never happened before. Yes, it’s too small a sample and needs duplication and further study, but oncologists and researchers are pretty excited, at least as applied to this cancer.

Here are the basics culled from news reports:

Eighteen rectal cancer patients (of varied ages) took “dostarlimab,” from a class of drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors, for six months. Each had advanced, localized cancer. They hoped simply for remission, but their cancer literally disappeared in each case.

Essentially a form of immunotherapy, instead of directly attacking a tumor it works on the immune system to make it fight cancer differently. Dostarlimab unmasked the cancer cells so the participants’ immune systems could better find and fight them. The drug is already used against melanomas, but not other types of cancers such as colorectal.

Few if any side effects occurred. Unlike radiation and chemo, most experienced no serious adverse effects in the trial. According to reports this is also highly unusual.

Not every rectal cancer patient would be eligible for this drug, but for some it could obviate the need for surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, especially if used early. Some in the trial already had those treatments before the experiment.

Like so many life-saving medications dostarlimab is expensive, as much as $11,000 per dose given every three weeks for six months in the trial. That could make it unaffordable to most.

As with a 2017 study of another immune checkpoint inhibitor, patients who responded best shared a gene mutation — what some cancer researchers say is a better target for cure research than the particular type of cancer. Calling this experimental treatment “immunoablative therapy,” MSK’s oncologist Luis Diaz, Jr. says it may potentially treat other kinds of cancer, which they are investigating.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who believes life-preserving healthcare should be as equally available to all as are public safety and basic education. Email

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