New drugs bring hope of cure to men with terminal prostate cancer


New drugs combo brings hope of cure to men with terminal prostate cancer: Seven pills a day pulled Andy, 51, back from brink of death

  • Andy Willis, 51, was handed a lifeline after being diagnosed with prostate cancer 

A man given only years to live after he was diagnosed with aggressive and incurable prostate cancer is now close to being tumour-free just months after he began a revolutionary drug treatment.

In April, Andy Willis became one of the first people to ever receive the experimental therapy after being told his cancer was too advanced for conventional treatment.

The 51-year-old Lancastrian now takes seven pills a day – without side effects. Crucially, scans reveal the cancer is now almost undetectable.

‘Every day I thank my lucky stars that I got the opportunity to take this drug,’ says Andy, a retired council worker. ‘Things were going downhill. I was ill and weak. Within weeks of starting the treatment, the pain lessened and I had more energy. I feel like I’ve got my life back.’

The new drug, called AZD5305, is a type of cutting-edge tablet known as a poly adenosine diphosphate-ribose polymerase (PARP) inhibitor – designed to kill cancer cells by stopping them self-repairing.

Another PARP inhibitor, called olaparib, was approved for certain NHS patients with prostate cancer and breast cancer earlier this year. The game-changing drug is also used in the treatment of a number of other forms of the disease, including ovarian and fallopian tube cancer.

The new drug, called AZD5305, is a type of cutting-edge tablet known as a poly adenosine diphosphate-ribose polymerase (PARP) inhibitor – designed to kill cancer cells by stopping them self-repairing

However, about half of all patients who take olaparib will experience anaemia – where a low level of red blood cells leads to fatigue and reduces the effectiveness of cancer treatment. Almost all of those on olaparib who develop the condition have to stop taking the drug.


But AZD5305 is designed to significantly reduce the risk of anaemia occurring, unearthing a new option for this group.

‘PARP inhibitors, such as olaparib, have proved very successful for cancer patients, particularly those with advanced disease,’ says Dr Andrew Hudson, consultant clinical oncologist at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester.

‘But it carries this high risk of side effects. Olaparib also attacks proteins in the bone marrow, where blood cells are produced, and there’s not much we can do to limit the risk of that.’

AZD5305 doesn’t seem to do this, though, as Dr Hudson explains: ‘We hope it could help younger patients with aggressive prostate cancer have a better quality of life.’

Prostate cancer is the most common form of the disease in men, with 52,000 new diagnoses every year. The majority occur in men aged over 65 and tend to be slow moving. Many patients will never require treatment because the disease does not threaten their health.

However, about a tenth of patients have an aggressive form the disease that, even when detected early, spreads fast and becomes fatal quickly. This prostate cancer is usually inherited – triggered by faults in the sufferers’ genes – and affects younger men. These patients make up a large proportion of the roughly 12,000 Britons who die of prostate cancer every year.

Around half of all men with advanced prostate cancer survive less than five years.

In April, patients with a particular type of inherited aggressive prostate cancer, caused by the BRCA gene mutation, were offered the chance to receive olaparib. Experts claim there are other people with inherited forms of cancer who could also eventually benefit. ‘We know from studies that patients who have DNA damage respond best to PARP inhibitors,’ says Dr Hudson. ‘BRCA is one example of this.’

AZD5305 is designed to be taken every day alongside another pill called enzalutamide, which blocks the effect of testosterone on prostate cancer cells.

During the early stage trial, taking place at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust and other hospitals around the world, a small number of prostate cancer patients are receiving the drug in order to analyse the risk of anaemia.

If the trial shows that the drug significantly reduces its occurrence, then the next step will be a larger trial to decide whether it could be offered to patients as an alternative to olaparib.

Dr Hudson says that, while it is too early to conclude whether the drug will be available on the NHS, he has been surprised at Andy Willis’s overwhelmingly positive response to the treatment.

‘It is certainly better than we’d have expected if he was just taking enzalutamide,’ he adds. ‘And, crucially, he has not experienced any serious side effects.

‘We are entering a new era for treating these aggressive prostate cancers, thanks to drugs such as PARP inhibitors.

‘These patients are now living for a number of years, continuing to work and lead fairly normal lives.

‘But that is contingent on them not getting side effects, including anaemia. A drug which could help avoid that risk would make a big difference.’

I didn’t suffer a single side effect 

Andy Willis first realised something was wrong when he was on holiday in Scotland three years ago.

Two days into the trip, the 51-year-old from Lancashire began to experience a painful back and had difficulty peeing. Conscious of the fact his father had died of prostate cancer in his 60s, Andy immediately booked an appointment with his GP. The retired council worker was quickly referred into hospital where scans revealed a large tumour in his prostate.

Andy says: ‘The doctors told me it was essentially the worst case scenario. The cancer was aggressive and had spread around my body. It was incurable.’

He was offered hormone-suppressing drugs to slow the cancer and six rounds of chemo. ‘But I was told this would just buy me time,’ he says.

It also left Andy severely unwell. ‘I was so weak I couldn’t go anywhere. I struggled to climb the stairs.’

Then, in April, he was offered the chance to take part in a trial of AZD5305. He says: ‘Within a few weeks I was getting up to pee in the night less and I stopped taking painkillers. And, after a month, I was out and about living a relatively normal life again. I have had no side effects at all, which is incredible.’

Crucially, scans and blood tests reveal the cancer has shrunken to the point it is nearly undetectable.

‘I know it’s not a cure,’ he says, ‘but I’m hopeful it could keep the disease under control for some time.’

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