Third Eye

New colorectal cancer drug game changer, say medics

Wednesday, June 8th, 2022 00:11 | By
Health PS Susan Mochache (third left) with Nakuru Governor Lee Kinyanjui (second left) being taken through some of the cancer machines at the newly commissioned regional cancer centre at Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital in Nakuru on Monday. PD/Raphael Munge

The discovery of a new drug in the United States with immense potential to treat colorectal cancer has caused excitement among Kenyan medics amid high hopes that a cure for the highly dangerous disease is in the offing.

The only obstacle is that the drug could be out of reach for most Kenyans as it costs Sh1.2 million per dose.

Oncologists in Kenya are full of hope following reports that researchers at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York have found a drug that virtually cured colorectal cancer patients during clinical trials.

“The future of cancer treatment lies in the use of immunotherapy which helps the body’s immune system to fight cancerous tumours. Immunotherapy is a different line of treatment from the conventional way of chemotherapy,” says Dr Catherine Nyongesa, an oncologist at the Kenyatta National Hospital and the founder of Texas Cancer Centre.

Nyongesa says that the drug, Dostarlimab, is a monoclonal antibody drug that helps the body’s immune system to ward off foreign cancerous cells attacking it.

The medic who has also been involved in several cancer research activities, says the positive results exhibited by the trials in the US are clear signs that cancer drug is on the way. 

She compares the recent discovery to that of treatment on breast cancer that is already in the country. Though expensive, Dr Nyongesa disclosed, patients suffering from breast cancer are apparently able to access drugs at approximately Sh70, 000 per month.

Clinical trials

“Though at clinical trial stage, Dostarlimab is available to those who can afford at thousands of hundreds shillings per month. But with time, it would soon be affordable to the wider majority,” she says.

Same sentiments were shared by Prof Otieno Abinya of Kenyatta National Hospital and Dr Gladwell Kiarie, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a practising oncologist at Nairobi Hospital. 

“It is going to be game changer in the treatment of cancer. It gives us a lot of hope on a disease that leaves behind deaths and a trail of destruction,” says Kiarie.

On the other hand, Abinya said local researchers and oncologists were monitoring clinical trials with a lot of interest.

Kenya records at least 47,000 new cases of cancer each year, with annual death rate of about 30,000.

In the clinical trial, each of the 18 participants in the research for the colorectal drug had their disease go into complete remission, with doctors unable to find signs of the cancer in their body. 

The 18 patients had all gone through previous treatments for colorectal cancer before the trial, including chemotherapy and risky surgeries. Patients enrolled in the study received monoclonal antibody treatments every three weeks for six months. It cost about $11,000 ( Sh 1.26 million ) per dose. 

The drug effectively ‘unmasks’ hiding cancer cells, which then allows the immune system to identify and destroy them. 

Researchers followed up with the patients 12 months later and the cancer had seemingly vanished from their bodies, with the medical staff unable to find signs of tumors with any of the available screening methods.

“At the time of this report, no patients had received chemoradiotherapy or undergone surgery, and no cases of progression or recurrence had been reported during follow-up,’ researchers wrote in the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

“I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” said Dr Luis Diaz, one of the lead authors of the paper and an oncologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre.

Exciting 

The research has been sponsored by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

“It is really exciting. I think this is a great step forward for patients’ said Diaz, a member of the White House’s National Cancer Advisory Board. 

Doctors say though the trial was small, it is considered game-changing, and sets up the drug as a potential cure for one of the most dangerous common cancers known.  “We are investigating if this same method may help other cancers where the treatments are often life-altering and tumors can be MMRd,” Dr Diaz said. 

He added: “We are currently enrolling patients with gastric (stomach), prostate, and pancreatic cancers.”The treatment applies to those with tumors with a specific genetic makeup known as mismatch repair-deficient (MMRd) or microsatellite instability (MSI).

Between five and 10 per cent of all rectal cancer patients are thought to have MMRd tumors, including all the patients in the clinical trial. While this study is ground breaking and looks like doctors may have stumbled onto a cancer cure, they know it is too early to declare this a miracle drug.

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