Sascha Roth remembers the phone call came on a hectic Friday evening. She was racing around her home in Washington, D.C., to pack for New York, where she was scheduled to undergo weeks of radiation therapy for rectal cancer. But the phone call from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) medical oncologist Andrea Cercek changed everything, leaving Sascha “stunned and ecstatic — I was so happy.” Dr. Cercek told Sascha, then 38, that her latest tests showed no evidence of cancer, after Sascha had undergone six months of treatment as the first patient in a clinical trial involving immunotherapy at MSK.
Immunotherapy harnesses the body’s own immune system as an ally against cancer. The MSK clinical trial was investigating — for the first time ever — if immunotherapy alone could beat rectal cancer that had not spread to other tissues, in a subset of patients whose tumor contain a specific genetic mutation. “Dr. Cercek told me a team of doctors examined my tests,” recalls Sascha. “And since they couldn’t find any signs of cancer, Dr. Cercek said there was no reason to make me endure radiation therapy.”
These same remarkable results would be repeated for all 14 people — and counting — in the MSK clinical trial for rectal cancer with a particular mutation. While it’s a small trial so far, the results are so impressive they were published in The New England Journal of Medicine and featured at the nation’s largest gathering of clinical oncologists in June 2022. In every case, the rectal cancer disappeared after immunotherapy — without the need for the standard treatments of radiation, surgery, or chemotherapy — and the cancer has not returned in any of the patients, who have been cancer-free for up to two years. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” says Dr. Cercek, “to get these happy tears and happy emails from the patients in this study who finish treatment and realize, ‘Oh my God, I get to keep all my normal body functions that I feared I might lose to radiation or surgery.’ ”