Thousands of blood cancer patients could soon benefit from revolutionary ‘anti-cancer antibodies’, which cut the risk of relapse by a quarter and spare patients from the toxic effects of chemotherapy.
Given as an infusion, the treatment uses artificial proteins which hunt out tumours in the body and carry chemotherapy drugs directly to cancer cells, destroying them.
It has been described as a ‘Trojan horse’ drug and not only does this effect make it more potent than traditional treatments, but it is far more precise, saving healthy cells from damage.
Experts have hailed the drug, called Polivy, the ‘biggest breakthrough in two decades’ for sufferers of one of the most common types of the disease who do not respond to traditional chemo.
Results of a landmark trial into use of the drug published last week showed that those on the treatment were 25 per cent less likely than others to see their cancer return after two years.
Thousands of blood cancer patients could soon benefit from revolutionary ‘anti-cancer antibodies’, which cut the risk of relapse by a quarter and spare patients from the toxic effects of chemotherapy
If patients remain disease-free after two years, the chance of it returning is vanishingly small.
Dr Graham Collins, consultant haematologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and researcher on the trial, says: ‘This new treatment is the first major step forwards we’ve seen in some time for patients with advanced disease.’
Previous trials showed the medicines, which doctors call antibody-drug conjugates, are highly effective on bladder cancer, cutting deaths by a third.
The current study involved patients with a type of blood cancer called diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, with which 5,500 Britons are diagnosed every year.
There are 70 types of lymphoma, and each type refers to a specific type of lymphocyte – blood cell – that malfunctions. In diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, infection-fighting cells called B-cells are affected.
After diagnosis, NHS patients currently receive a combination of chemotherapy drugs, which work well in the majority of cases and stop the cancer returning.
But for a third of patients, it comes back and becomes almost impossible to treat. The new approach combines Polivy, also called polatuzumab vedotin, with several chemotherapy drugs currently in use.
Polivy contains antibodies that are similar to the ones produced naturally by the immune system in response to an intruder.
But these are designed to hunt for a particular protein in the cancer cell.
The antibodies contain a small but potent dose of chemotherapy and when they find the target, they attach themselves, delivering the dose directly into the tumour.
This technology allows doctors to hit the cancer with higher doses of medication without fear of seriously damaging the body, as antibody-drug conjugates harm far fewer healthy cells because they are programmed not to release the chemo until they find the cancer.
Dr Collins said: ‘It is a bit like a Trojan horse, which sneaks into the cancer cell and then destroys it.’
Results of a landmark trial into use of the drug published last week showed that those on the treatment were 25 per cent less likely than others to see their cancer return after two years. [File image]
Last week, results from a global trial of 800 patients, presented by drug manufacturer Roche, found the treatment resulted in fewer side effects and kept more patients cancer-free for longer, compared with traditional chemotherapy.
Patients on Polivy saw a 27 per cent reduction in the risk of cancer progression or death compared to patients on traditional chemotherapy, over the space of 24 months.
One patient to benefit already is Richard Clarke, 78, a retired farmer from Oxford. He was diagnosed in September 2018 after suffering pain in his shoulder.
An MRI scan revealed he had a tumour on his left shoulder blade, and one in his lower back. Dr Collins signed him up for the Polivy trial and he was started on the treatment one month after his diagnosis.
Over the next year, Richard visited hospital six times, three weeks apart, for an intravenous injection of drugs, including Polivy.
After the six sessions, he had to take two doses of an unrelated drug to help strengthen his immunity.
MRI scans during the treatment showed the tumours were reducing in size and when he finished the treatment, the tumours appeared to have vanished. Richard says: ‘I had my last check-up two months ago and I’m still cancer-free.’