Cancer treatment: Is a major breakthrough in the offing?

Fourteen cancer patients, including one of Indian origin, who underwent a trial treatment at a New York centre, have described their treatment during the trial as a “miracle” saying their cancers have completely disappeared.

The trial which was conducted  at the Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Centre in New York used immunotherapy to treat patients of rectal cancer.

“The rectal cancer disappeared after immunotherapy — without the need for the standard treatments of radiation, surgery, or chemotherapy — and the cancer has not returned in any of the patients, who have been cancer-free for up to two years,” the MSK has  claimed.

Cancer continues to be one of major killer disease the world over as researchers continue to investigate what causes this deadly disease. In Punjab, there are certain areas, especially in the Malwa region, that are come to known as “cancer belts”.

Though a number of cancer hospitals have come up and oncologists trained overseas, including the US, are working in these hospitals, recovery rate continues to be low.

Besides, the accepted treatments –  surgery, radiation and chemotherapy – are not only highly expensive but also limit possibilities of complete cure in case the detection comes at a later stage.

Once the immunotherapy as tried at the MSK centre gets ratified by various bodies of oncologists, this may come as a huge relief to both patients and their families on one hand and the State authorities in combating its incidence.

According to researchers, this was the first time that all the patients in a cancer trial were completely healed with a medication that did not have serious side-effects.

The results of the trial were disclosed over the weekend in the New England Journal of Medicine and at a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

An Indian-origin patient was among those who is a beneficiary of this trial treatment described as  a “miracle” cure using a cancer medication that is being tried out by a research centre here, achieving an unprecedented healing rate when all 14 patients in the trial had their cancers disappear.

“It’s a miracle”, Nisha Varughese, a patient of Indian origin, said corroborating the MSK claims  about the immunotherapy drug’s efficacy in curing her.

An editorial in the  New England Journal  of Medicine  has described this trial treatment by immunotherapy  as “an early glimpse of a revolutionary treatment shift”.

MSK explained that “immunotherapy harnesses the body’s own immune system as an ally against cancer”.

It said, “The Immune cells contain a safeguard called a checkpoint, to prevent them from attacking normal cells. Cancer cells can trip this safeguard and shut down immune cells, allowing a tumour to hide and grow.”

Immunotherapy uses what is called a “checkpoint inhibitor” that frees immune cells to recognise and attack cancer cells, she added.

 Recalling how she felt after the trial treatment,  Liza Varughese said  discovering that she was completely cancer-free was an amazing feeling. She said: “That day I didn’t see the tumour. So, I was thinking, where is the tumour? Then, I thought maybe it’s hiding somewhere inside. Doctor told me there is no more tumour. It’s a miracle.”

Andrea Cercek, a cancer specialist who ran the trial, said, “The immunotherapy shrank the tumours much faster than I expected.”

Luis Diaz, who was the other researcher running the trial and is a member of the White House National Cancer Advisory Board, said, “It is  really exciting. I think this is a great step forward for patients.”

Usually, rectal cancer is treated with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. But Cercek said, “The most exciting part of this is that every single one of our patients has only needed immunotherapy. We haven’t radiated anybody, and we haven’t put anybody through surgery.”

Oncologist Hanna K Sanoff from the University of North Carolina, however, cautioned  in the editorial of the New England Journal of Medicine that, “Whether the results of this small study conducted at the MSK Cancer Centre will be generalisable to a broader population of patients with rectal cancer is not known yet.”

“Despite these uncertainties,” she added, “Cercek and colleagues and their patients who agreed to forgo the standard treatment for a promising but unknown future with immunotherapy have provided what may be an early glimpse of a revolutionary treatment shift.”