13 years ago, Michael English has diagnosed with stage 3 to 4 aggressive prostate cancer.
It is a form of the disease that has a very low survival rate.
Doctors tried everything from hormone therapy to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. However, his tumor kept on returning.
Since 2005, Michael’s cancer has come back four times as some cancerous cells evaded the medicines.
Then, he was selected to be a part of a medical trial of a new immunotherapy drug that uses mechanisms that already exist in the body to attack and kill cancer cells for good.
Michael thought it was already his time as he was transferred to palliative care to make his death painless after his cancer returned.
But British scientists have found the thing that makes cancer cells dangerous – the diseased cells’ ability to evade best treatments and mutate – may also be their Achilles heel.
Researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research have discovered that every time a cancer cell mutates, it leaves a biological fingerprint behind, and our immune systems can be taught to look for these fingerprints and kill them so they can never come back. This is called cancer immunotherapy.
It was last year when Michael was enrolled in the drug trial by Professor Johann de Bono, head of the clinical studies at ICR.
It was beyond optimistic as Michael was already past his chances in terms of conventional therapy. In addition, his intestines were already ravaged due to previous radiotherapy treatments. His large intestine also had perforated, causing the 72-year-old horrible infections. Michael was also very ill he wouldn’t be able to withstand a surgery to repair his gut.
He was so ill that he could only take 10 intravenous doses of the drug pembrolizumab, marketed as Keytruda, once every three weeks.
He should have taken 29 doses to complete the treatment. However, he was already too sick.
Nevertheless, an MRI to check his progress showed that the tumor had disappeared completely.
With cancer gone, Michael became strong enough to get the stomach surgery he needed. Last week, he had another cancer scan and he is still clear.
“It is absolutely incredible,” he says.
Professor de Bono said that Michael’s results were “profound and spectacular” and he believes science could help millions of patients.
Despite his frailty, Michael was a good candidate for the trial as his cancer’s DNA had mutated multiple times to evade treatment. There were many cancer’s fingerprints for the drug pembrolizumab to discover and attack.
“Patients like Michael have a defect in a gene called CDK12, which controls how a cell can repair faults in its DNA,” Prof. de Bono said. “However, this could be an Achilles heel, because it also causes an increase in jumbled-up DNA that the immune system can more easily recognise as a threat.”
The drug works by searching the cancer cells that have covered themselves in proteins to hide from our immune system. It blocks these proteins, letting the immune system identify them as a threat and destroy them.
Professor Charles Swanton, the chief clinician at Cancer Research UK, recalled wanting to study the field in 1985 but is “strongly discouraged.” That’s because no one thought it would work, but Michael is a living proof that it could.
Michael is not the only patient who experienced the positive effects of such treatments.
What’s your take on this? Do you think that doctors finally found the right weapon to cure cancer? Let us know what you think in the comments section below!