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The cancer drug had a 100% success rate.  : NPR

The new treatment is classified as immunotherapy.

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skaman306/Getty Images

The cancer drug had a 100% success rate.  : NPR

The new treatment is classified as immunotherapy.

skaman306/Getty Images

A small group of people with rectal cancer have just experienced a kind of scientific miracle: their cancer simply disappeared after an experimental treatment.

In a very small trial by doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, patients took a drug called dostarlimab for six months. The trial resulted in the disappearance of each of their tumors. The trial group was only 18 people, and there’s still a lot to learn about how the treatment works. But some scientists say these kinds of results have never been seen in the history of cancer research.

Dr. Hanna Sanoff of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina has joined NPR All things Considered to describe how this drug works and what it could mean for the future of cancer research. Although she was not involved in the study, Dr. Sanoff wrote about the results.

This interview has been slightly edited

On his first reaction to the results:
I mean, I’m incredibly optimistic. As you said in the introduction, we’ve never seen anything work in 100% of people in cancer medicine.

On how the drug works to treat cancer:
This drug is in a class of drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors. These are immunotherapy drugs that work not by directly attacking the cancer itself, but by getting a person’s immune system to essentially do the work. These are drugs that have been around for a long time in the treatment of melanoma and other cancers, but really haven’t been part of routine colorectal cancer care until fairly recently.

On the types of side effects experienced by patients:
Very, very few in this study – in fact, surprisingly few. Most people had no serious side effects.

On how this study could be considered “changeable in practice”:
Our hope would be that for this subgroup of people – which only represents about 5-10% of people with rectal cancer – if they can go on and have just six months of immunotherapy and not have the rest – I don’t even know the word to use. Paradigm shift is often used, but it really is a paradigm shift.

Why the idea of ​​being able to skip surgery for cancer treatment is so revolutionary:
In the case of rectal cancer, it is part of the conversation we have with someone when they are diagnosed. We are hopeful that we can cure you, but unfortunately we know that our treatments will leave you with consequences that can, in fact, change your life. I have had patients who, after their rectal cancer, barely left the house for years – and in a few cases, even decades – because of the consequences of incontinence and the shame associated with it.

Next steps for the drug:
What I would really like us to do is get a bigger trial where this drug is used in a much more diverse setting to understand what the true, real response rate will be. It won’t end up being 100%. I hope I bite my tongue in the future, but I can’t imagine it will be 100%. And so when you see what the true response rate is, that’s where I think you can really do this all the time.

This piece was reported by Sacha Pfeiffer, produced by Jonaki Mehta and edited by Kathryn Fox. It was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.


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