Cutting-edge immunotherapy treatment extends lives

11 March 2019

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer among Canadians, with around 26,800 people being diagnosed each year. While many will survive, the reality is about 9,400 Canadians are expected to die from colorectal cancer this year. This is why a new clinical trial is bringing hope and promise to so many.

The clinical trial, conducted by the Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG) with the support of the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), has found that a new immunotherapy approach extended the lives of people with colorectal cancer for whom other therapies had failed.

The trial, which is the first randomized trial in the country, showed that combining 2 immunotherapy drugs is effective in people whose colorectal cancer was previously thought to be resistant to this type of immunotherapy. Until recently, immunotherapy was shown only to work in 5-10% of people with colorectal cancer whose tumours had a specific genetic signature. Through the trial, it became clear that immunotherapy could benefit far more people facing this cancer than previously thought.

The trial studied the immunotherapy drug combination in people whose colorectal cancer did not have this genetic signature and who had exhausted all available treatment options. The participants were randomly assigned to receive the immunotherapy combination plus supportive care (such as pain management) or supportive care alone, which is the current standard of care for advanced treatment-resistant colorectal cancer.

The researchers found that people who received the 2-drug combo along with supportive care were 35% less likely to die and did not have a lower quality of life as a result of the treatment. The trial recruited 180 patients from 27 centres across Canada.

One of those participants was Lucy Chang, who was offered the opportunity to take part in the trial when her colorectal cancer failed to respond to all other treatment options. “Over the past 18 months I have been able to lead a more normal life while controlling my cancer which has been important for me and my family,” says Lucy.

The 2 drugs used in the study, durvalumab and tremelimumab, belong to a category of therapies known as immune checkpoint inhibitors. They work by releasing the brakes on the immune system and unleashing immune cells to attack cancer cells. Studies are ongoing to better understand which patients benefited the most from this treatment. Results also need to be confirmed in larger trials before this approach becomes the new standard of care.

Each year, CCS invests nearly $5 million in CCTG, enabling it to conduct critical cancer trials like this one. Thanks to clinical trials, since 1980 hundreds of new drugs have been tested as life-saving treatments and 80,000 people have received cutting-edge care.

You can help save more lives and give hope to countless others by purchasing a Gift of Research to help fund clinical trials.