The research, funded by Cancer Research UK and presented at the ESMO medical conference, shows the potential of an innovative approach using existing relatively inexpensive drugs in conjunction with conventional radiotherapy.
The results of the research aroused optimism in the medical community, as they revealed a significant (35%) reduction in the risk of women dying from cervical cancer or the disease returning.
As part of the study, 250 women with cervical cancer underwent a new treatment – intensive six-week chemotherapy administered in the form of two drugs – carboplatin and paclitaxel. This was followed by the “usual” treatment known as chemoradiotherapy. Another 250 women – the control group – underwent only the usual chemoradiotherapy.
After five years, the researchers came back with the results: 80% of those who received the new treatment were alive, and 73% of them had not had cancer return or spread. By comparison, in the “usual” treatment group, 72% of patients were alive, and the cancer had not returned or spread in 64% of them.
“This is the biggest improvement in outcomes for this disease in the last 20 years. Importantly, if patients are alive and well without the cancer returning after five years, then it is very likely that they are cured. That’s the very exciting part,” Mary McCormack, one of the authors of the study, told the BBC’s Today programme.
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“Timing is all about cancer treatment. A growing body of evidence shows that additional rounds of chemotherapy before other treatments, such as surgery and radiotherapy, make a difference in several other cancers. “Not only can chemotherapy make the cancer less likely to come back, but it can also be given quickly using drugs that are already available around the world,” said Iain Foulkes from Cancer Research UK.
“We are excited about the improvements that this study could bring to the treatment of cervical cancer, and we hope that short cycles of induction chemotherapy will be quickly implemented in clinics,” he added.
Because both drugs used as chemotherapy are cheap, available and already approved for use in patients, experts say they could become the new standard of care fairly quickly.
“Cervical cancer is a disease that often affects women in their thirties or younger. Patients with locally advanced disease have a relatively high probability of recurrence – therefore the results of the study represent important progress,” said Jonathan Ledermann, lead author of the research.
However, the study authors warn that not all women with cervical cancer may achieve the same favorable results with the new treatment. Many of the women included in the study had cancer that had not yet spread elsewhere in the body. It is therefore unclear how well the treatment would work in women with more advanced disease.
In addition, like many other treatments, these chemotherapy drugs can cause side effects such as nausea and hair loss. Patients and healthcare professionals must weigh these potential disadvantages against the significant benefits observed in the study. However, according to the authors, the results of the study represent an important milestone in the fight against cervical cancer.
Currently, according to statistics, about 2,700 women fall ill each year, and approximately 31,000 are treated and cured. Cervical cancer is caused by sexually transmitted infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), and it is also involved in other types of tumors in the genital area, mouth, neck, throat or causes genital warts. 80 percent of people will encounter the virus during their lifetime, and in most cases it will be eliminated by their own immunity.