Rectal cancer study patients in remission, not cured yet

Some social media posts celebrate a “cure” for a certain type of rectal cancer. Here’s what VERIFY found out about the outcome of the small clinical drug trial.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Doctors and scientists around the world have long tried to develop treatments that can cure the disease.

When VERIFY viewer Ashley spotted social media posts and headlines like this one claiming that all cancer patients participating in a drug trial were “cured of the disease,” she asked us if scientists had really achieved that what once seemed impossible: a cure for cancer.

THE QUESTION

Did a Trial Using Cancer Drugs Cure All Participants?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This requires context.

All patients in a small study of a rare type of rectal cancer went into remission, but that doesn’t mean the study found a cure for that specific cancer, as it’s too early to know if patients’ cancers will return becomes. Additionally, the study did not find a widespread cure for all cancers.

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WHAT WE FOUND

The social media posts and headlines refer to a study conducted by researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. It looked at whether immunotherapy alone could treat a rare form of rectal cancer that hadn’t spread to other tissues. Immunotherapy helps the immune system to fight cancer cells better.

The results of the study were published in June 2022 by the New England Journal of Medicine. About a dozen people completed treatment with the drug dostarlimab, which was given intravenously every three weeks for a total of six months.

All patients enrolled in the study had tumors with a “specific genetic makeup known as mismatch repair deficient (MMRd) or microsatellite instability (MSI),” the researchers said. It is believed that between 5 and 10% of all rectal cancer patients have MMRd tumors.

The study found that the cancer in all patients went into remission after six months, meaning their cancer was undetectable. None of the patients received chemotherapy or surgery, and they were cancer-free for up to two years.

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But remission is not the same as a cure. The National Cancer Institute explains that a remission, which can be partial or complete, means that a person’s signs and symptoms of the cancer are reduced. In a complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer are gone.

On the other hand, a “cure means that after treatment, there is no trace of your cancer and the cancer never comes back,” according to the National Cancer Institute.

Some doctors might say a person is cured if they remain in remission for five years or more, although some cancer cells can remain in the body long after treatment. Most cancers that return do so within the first five years after treatment.

While the news of remission in all of the patients who participated in the clinical trial is an exciting step forward, an expert told VERIFY that more evidence is needed to determine if the participants are cured.

“We need more time to know that the cancer is truly and permanently gone. We don’t know that yet,” said Tom George, MD, medical oncologist at the University of Florida. “What we do know is that the cancer has shrunk, it’s shrunk to the point where we can’t see it.”

Medical experts are still hopeful about the clinical trial’s promising results as patients continue to be enrolled.

“We’re all very, very excited about this because it could be a new era for patients with colon cancer, at least for this type of colon cancer … and maybe surgery for these patients isn’t necessary in the future,” George said. “Instead, their own bodies and immune systems could actually treat the cancer for them with the help of drugs.”

Researchers involved in the clinical trial are also investigating whether immunotherapy can help other types of cancer, where tumors may be MMRd. They are currently accepting patients with gastric, prostate and pancreatic cancer.

But there’s still work to be done in the field of cancer research, Elad Sharon, MD, senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute, told VERIFY.

“Unfortunately, while immunotherapy shows real promise in certain areas, it has been less successful in other areas. And one thing to note is that just because this works so well for this particular subtype of rectal cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that patients with other types of rectal cancer can benefit just as much from this type of therapy. In fact, we know that unfortunately they can’t,” said Sharon.

“And so the research goes on and we have to at least understand that while we’re celebrating the achievements for these particular patients, unfortunately the struggle continues to yield benefits for the vast majority of patients,” he continued.

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https://www.king5.com/article/news/verify/health-verify/rectal-cancer-patients-remission-drug-trial-doesnt-mean-cure-for-cancer/536-a131f26d-d4ae-4c07-b3a0-33cab84c767f Rectal cancer study patients in remission, not cured yet

Alley Einstein

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