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Rectal cancer patients in remission after promising study, but that doesn’t mean there’s a ‘cure for cancer’

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

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

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


Did a cancer drug trial cure all participants?



This needs context.

All of the patients in a small study on a rare type of rectal cancer did go into remission, but that doesn’t mean the trial found a cure for that specific cancer as it’s too soon to know whether the patients’ cancer will return. In addition, the study did not find a widespread cure for all cancers. 

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The social media posts and headlines reference a study conducted by researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. It investigated if immunotherapy alone could treat a rare form of rectal cancer that had not spread to other tissues. Immunotherapy helps the immune system better act against cancer cells. 

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

All of the patients enrolled in the trial had tumors with a “specific genetic makeup known as mismatch repair-deficient (MMRd) or microsatellite instability (MSI),” researchers said. Between 5 to 10% of all rectal cancer patients are thought to have MMRd tumors. 

The study found that the cancer entered remission for all patients after six months, meaning their cancer was no longer detectable. None of the patients received chemotherapy or surgery, and they have been cancer-free for up to two years.

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

On the other hand, a “cure means that there are no traces of your cancer after treatment and the cancer will never come 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, though 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 patients who took part in the clinical trial is an exciting step forward, an expert told VERIFY more evidence is needed to determine whether the participants are cured. 

“We need more time to know that the cancer is truly, permanently, gone. We don’t know that yet,” said Tom George, M.D., a medical oncologist at the University of Florida. “What we know is that the cancer shrunk, it shrunk down so far that we can’t see it anymore.”

Medical experts are still hopeful about the clinical trial’s promising results, as it continues to enroll patients.  

“We're all very, very excited about this, because it could usher in a new era for patients with bowel cancer, at least this type of cancer in the bowel…and maybe surgery isn't going to be necessary for these patients in the future,” George said. “Instead, their own bodies and their own immune systems with help from medicines could actually take care of the cancer for them.”

Researchers involved in the clinical trial are also investigating if immunotherapy may help other cancers where tumors can be MMRd. They are currently enrolling patients with stomach, prostate and pancreatic cancers. 

But there is still more work to be done in the field of cancer research, Elad Sharon, M.D.,  senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute, told VERIFY.

“While immunotherapy is really promising in certain areas, unfortunately, in other areas, it's been less successful. And one thing to mention is that just because this happens to work so well in this particular subtype of rectal cancer doesn't necessarily mean that the patients who have other types of rectal cancer can benefit as much from this type of therapy. In fact, we know that they can't unfortunately,” Sharon said.

“And so the research goes on and we need to at least have an understanding that although we are celebrating the successes for these particular patients, the fight unfortunately continues to find benefits for the vast majority of patients going forward,” he continued. 

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