Study of 111 ‘exceptional’ cancer patients yields clues to better drug treatments

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A scan of a patient with glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer. In rare cases, patients receiving chemotherapy for this cancer have been tumor-free for years. 

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By Jocelyn KaiserNov. 19, 2020 , 11:50 AM

While even the best cancer drugs don’t buy much time for most people whose cancer has spread, there are rare exceptions: The patients whose multiple tumors melt away and who remain healthy years later. Researchers have long dismissed these “exceptional responders” as unexplainable outliers. Now, an effort to systematically study them is yielding data that could help improve cancer treatments.

 The project, led by the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI), examined the DNA of tumors and immune cells found around or within those cancers in 111 exceptional responders. In 26 of the patients, scientists found geneomic changes to the tumors or immune clues that may explain why a drug that didn’t work for most people shrank the responders’ tumors for months or years. Some cases suggest combining certain drugs could yield better outcomes. The findings show that examining these fortunate few is worthwhile, says Dale Garsed of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Australia. The study “opens new avenues for treating comparable cancers …

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