From Mark E. Johns, MD, medical oncologist and hematologist at OHC

July 20, 2022

Last month, results of a small clinical trial presented at the 2022 ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) annual meeting revealed complete remission from rectal cancer in study participants. While it will take time to understand whether patients remain in remission, and results will have to be replicated in larger studies, this breakthrough is extremely encouraging for a group of patients who often face a challenging treatment journey with poor quality of life.

Fourteen participants in the phase two study at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have undergone at least six months of follow-up, with four of the patients being followed for nearly two years. During follow-up, the cancer was not detectable on imaging scans, biopsies, endoscopic tests, or physical exams. None of the study participants experienced adverse effects from the therapy.

Specifically, researchers evaluated the use of the immunotherapy dostarlimab in patients with stage two or three rectal cancer tumors that are mismatch repair-deficient (MMRd), meaning they have a genetic defect that inhibits the immune system from recognizing and killing the cancer cells.

These findings offer hope to a patient population that often responds poorly to standard rectal cancer treatments. Moreover, these standard treatments, like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery, can result in bowel and bladder issues, nerve damage, sexual dysfunction, infertility, and/or the use of a colostomy bag. Researchers are still enrolling patients and investigating the use of dostarlimab for other cancer types.

Cancer cells can be sneaky, hiding from the body’s immune system. Immunotherapies like dostarlimab reveal the cancer cells to the immune system helping it to seek and destroy them. This study was the first clinical trial to investigate if immunotherapy alone could fight rectal cancer that had not spread in a group of patients with tumors containing a specific genetic mutation (change). Study participants had not received any other treatment prior to starting dostarlimab, indicating that it might be possible to treat patients immediately with immunotherapy and avoid the harsh effects of standard rectal cancer therapies.

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. The incidence of the disease is on the rise in young adults. Most colorectal cancer begins as an abnormal tissue growth (polyp) inside the colon or rectum. These growths are identified and removed by doctors during colonoscopy, which points to the importance of regular screenings. Those at average risk for colorectal cancer should begin screening at age 45.

Signs of rectal cancer to report to your doctor include:

  • A change in bowel habits
  • Blood in stool
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Change in appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue

Rectal cancer may present without systems, which emphasizes the importance of discussing a recommended screening schedule with your doctor. Rectal cancer is highly survivable when detected in its early stages.

OHC remains at the forefront of cancer care using molecular diagnostic testing and next-generation sequencing to understand tumor DNA. This enables us to formulate an individualized treatment plan based on a patient’s unique cancer. Our robust cancer research and clinical trials program gives patients early access to the most innovative therapies. To learn more about OHC’s leading cancer doctors or to request a second opinion, call 1-888-649-4800 or visit ohcare.com.

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