Last December, Kevin Jones, a 43-year-old businessman from Dorset was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was advanced and inoperable. Today, as he prepares to celebrate Christmas with his son, Mr Jones is free from any detectable trace of the disease; the human face of a medical breakthrough so exciting that the scientists involved struggle to contain their excitement.
Twelve patients with inoperable tumours were enrolled on a phase I trial, used to establish the safety and toxicity of a drug. They were given daily doses of the drug before radiation therapy. At the end of the trial, led by Dr Thomas Brunner, the patients were scanned again.
The research team was stunned by the results. Of 10 patients who completed the course, six were able to have previously inoperable tumours removed. Across the group, overall average survival time more than doubled. More remarkably still, in one case the combination of drug treatment and radiotherapy had eradicated every living cancer cell, with no trace of disease found by surgeons.
“There was a complete pathological response. No sign of the cancer at all. It had completely disappeared.”
The excitement from Professor Gillies McKenna, the head of the Gray Institute, is palpable. He quickly checks himself. Forty years pioneering advances in cancer treatment make him all too aware of the desperation of those diagnosed with advanced disease, and the rush to pin “miracle” labels on significant, but faltering, steps.
Yet four years since the trial started, the man remains free of cancer. A female patient, who had 90 per cent of cancer cells destroyed, also remains healthy, more than three years on.