Updated: Feb 14
A few weeks ago, researchers released what is already coming to be viewed as a milestone achievement in the battle against cancer.
For the first time in history, a clinical trial resulted in complete remission in all patients in a cancer study. In this small Phase 2 trial, 18 patients received a monoclonal antibody called a check point inhibitor which “unmasks” cancer cells and allows your immune system to destroy the abnormal cells.
After 12 months of treatment, the small group of people experienced what an NPR story called “something of a scientific miracle.” The cancer disappeared in every single patient, undetectable whether by physical exam, endoscopy, PET scan, or M.R.I. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
So, what should we make of this?
First, the battle against cancer is long-term, and follow-up beyond 12 months is pending. Second, these patients had a specific genetic pattern that made their tumors susceptible to the anti-PD1 monoclonal antibody dostarlimab. Third, the study really speaks to the importance of immunotherapy (first demonstrated in malignant metastatic melanoma—a uniformly fatal disease and now showing long term remission in a subset of patients) as well as personalized genetics in targeting cancers which is becoming more and more common.
Finally, the trial targeted patients with cancer that had not yet spread, and patients who had not yet started chemo or other therapies. If they had, they would have been ineligible for the trial.
I take a few things from this: first, what I wrote about the battle against cancer a little over three months ago is still applicable:
It’s better to prevent cancer than get it.
If you do get it, survival rates are dramatically better if you catch it early.
Additionally, if these results hold in future trials and prove durable in the long run, we will indeed look back on this moment as a huge medical-scientific achievement. Just as medical research came through huge with effective vaccines for COVID, we need strong medical research—with strong funding—to achieve more of these breakthroughs with other cancers and patients with other genetic makeups.
We should all hope for more progress, and lobby for more funding to make these trials happen (this trial was sponsored by the drug company GlaxoSmithKline). In the meantime, we can do our part to help prevent cancer by eating well, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol consumption, and not smoking.