Eighteen for 18. That is the remarkable record of success so far of an ongoing drug trial for patients with rectal cancer. Every patient enrolled in the study at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York has seen their tumors vanish after taking the drug for six months, reports NPR. What's more, all have been able to avoid chemo, radiation, or radical surgeries that can result in everything from lifelong bowel dysfunction to sexual problems, per the New York Times. The results come with a major caveat, as spelled out in the study itself in the New England Journal of Medicine and an accompanying editorial: The sample size of 18 people (and counting) is tiny, and results must be replicated in larger studies.
Still, a 100% success rate has resulted in quotes like this: “I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” study author Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr. tells the Times. And in an interview with NPR, Dr. Hannah Sanoff of the University of North Carolina—she was not involved with the study but wrote the accompanying editorial in NEJM—puts it this way: "I don't even know the word to use. Paradigm shift is often used, but this really absolutely is paradigm-shifting." The immunotherapy drug used in the study is called dostarlimab, which is currently sold under the brand name Jemperli for use in the treatment of endometrial cancer, per Science Alert. The study is sponsored by maker GlaxoSmithKline.
Sanoff's editorial cautions that it's still possible that cancer could return in study participants. “Very little is known about the duration of time needed to find out whether a clinical complete response to dostarlimab equates to cure,” she writes. However, the first patient enrolled in the study, Sascha Roth, remains cancer-free after two years. “I told my family—they didn’t believe me," Roth, who was 38 when diagnosed in 2019, tells the Times. One more bonus: So far, all of the patients in the study have avoided significant side effects from taking the drug, which costs $11,000 per dose. Patients took it every three weeks for six months. (Read more cancer stories.)