New cancer drug trial puts patients into remission 'for months and years'

Experimental drugs see cancer drop to undetectable levels in some patients

Blood cancer can be hard to control and medics often find that patients are very sick because their entire immune system is affected. Getty Images

A groundbreaking trial of a new cancer drug is producing “incredibly impressive” results, with seriously ill people going into remission for months and years, a leading UK hospital has announced.

Experimental work into blood cancers such as myeloma is seeing the vast majority of patients responding to treatment, the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester said.

The trust currently has around 30 clinical trials in progress for blood cancer, including five for myeloma, a disease that develops from plasma cells in the bone marrow.

Many of the patients have limited or no other treatment options.

Dr Emma Searle, consultant haematologist at the Christie, said a number of new immunotherapy drugs – which are so experimental they do not yet have a name – mean some patients, such as those with myeloma, are seeing their cancer drop to undetectable levels.

“The results for this kind of trial – using drugs that enable the immune system to see and attack the myeloma – are incredibly impressive,” she told reporters.

“Using the drugs on their own, we are seeing responses in over two thirds of patients who have no standard treatment options left.

“And when using the drugs in combination … we are seeing responses in over 90 per cent of patients.”

She said immunotherapy drugs, which are already used in some other cancers, will “absolutely” change the face of treatment for blood cancer.

“These drugs are a huge breakthrough in this type of cancer, allowing patients without standard treatment options to achieve remission, in many cases for months or years,” Dr Searle added.

“When the drugs are used alone they achieve a remission lasting one to two years in most patients.

“Used in combination with other myeloma drugs, it is likely that responses and the effect on life expectancy will be even longer.”

Dr Searle, who is funded by the Christie charity, said she had not expected the immunotherapy to work so well in blood cancers, adding: “These are really fantastic results.”

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Blood cancer can be hard to control and medics often find that patients are very sick because their entire immune system is affected.

Patients with myeloma used to survive for three to five years, though the latest data suggests half of patients are still alive after 10 years.

There are around 6,000 new myeloma cases in the UK every year.

Although some of the new immunotherapies being tested are still only available in clinical trials in Manchester and London, the hope is they will become more widely used around the UK.

One myeloma patient who is benefiting from a clinical trial at the Christie is former children’s nurse Jan Ross, 57, from south Liverpool.

“Jan is getting a type of immunotherapy drug in combination with a standard drug,” Dr Searle said.

“We know the (standard) tablet alone doesn’t work well in her any more, but in this trial, it seems to help the immunotherapy work even better.”

Ms Ross began her treatment for myeloma in November last year and in just seven months went into complete remission.

She has only experienced fairly minor side effects of the new drug, such as brittle nails and some loss of taste.

Before immunotherapy, she used to catch infections but has not had any since starting the new treatment.

Ms Ross is now able to enjoy life and went to France recently on her first holiday since becoming ill.

“Since my diagnosis, I have had lots of different medications, each with side effects that have been really challenging and affected my quality of life,” she said.

“The myeloma could only be controlled for short periods of time for the first two-and-a-half years.

“Thanks to this amazing new trial drug, after just seven months the cancer can’t be detected.

“I would encourage anyone who fits the criteria for a trial drug to embrace it with confidence or at least explore your options.

“You too could be receiving the positive news I have just been given.”

Updated: August 16, 2023, 5:43 AM