Brazilian soccer legend Pelé died of colon cancer. Here are cutting-edge clinical trials trying to find new treatments for the disease.

Pele died of colon cancer, one of the most common types.Clive Mason/Getty

  • Brazilian football legend Pelé died of colon cancer on Thursday aged 82.

  • Colon cancer is the third most common cancer, affecting nearly 2 million people each year.

  • Here are US clinical trials investigating new treatment options for the disease.

Brazilian soccer legend Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele, died of colon cancer on Thursday at the age of 82. He is considered one of the greatest footballers ever: he was on the Brazilian national team for three World Cup victories, was one of the best goalscorers in history and helped popularize the sport in the United States.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International. In 2020, there were more than 1.9 million cases and 930,000 deaths worldwide. It is predicted to become more common by 2040, with an expected increase to 3.2 million cases and 1.6 million deaths annually, underscoring the need for good treatment options.

Pele isn’t the only celebrity to have died of colon cancer in recent years: Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman died of the disease in 2020 at the age of 43.

In the United States, there are four Phase Three clinical trials studying the effectiveness of new treatment options, according to a list put together by the National Cancer Institute. Here are the cutting-edge phase three clinical trials for colon cancer, in order of start date.

A study is testing the combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy

A study is testing the effects of chemotherapy and a monoclonal antibody, called atezolizumab, in treating a type of colon cancer caused by DNA’s inability to repair itself. Atezolizumab, sold under the brand name Tecentriq, is manufactured by Roche’s Genentech and is already used to treat several other cancers, including lung, liver and skin cancers.

The study is testing whether the combination of this immunotherapy, which helps the immune system attack cancer cells, and chemotherapy will produce better results than chemotherapy alone. It started in September 2017 and is expected to finish in April 2024.

Another study is investigating how vitamin D3 could help boost cancer treatments

The Solaris study is comparing what happens when patients are treated with chemotherapy and a monoclonal antibody with what happens when vitamin D3 is added to that treatment option.

Vitamin D3 helps the body absorb calcium, which is needed for bone health. Scientists think it may also affect the immune system and help treat and prevent some types of cancer.

The study began in September 2019 and is expected to conclude in July 2024.

One trial is studying 4 treatment methods to see which is best

A third study is investigating the effects of different treatment options on ‘active surveillance’ – close observation but not treatment – for patients who have been treated for colon cancer but are at risk of it returning.

If a tumor is not completely killed off, it may still be spreading its DNA throughout the body, and patients who test positive for this tumor DNA may have a higher risk of the tumor returning. The four treatment groups are chemotherapy, active surveillance, immunotherapy, and drugs that block cell growth.

The trial began in January 2020 and is expected to conclude in February.

The most recent clinical trial is testing a new drug

The latest trial to begin is looking at a brand new drug called XL092 that blocks tumor growth, as well as other important tumor functions, when used in combination with atezolizumab. XL092 was developed by Exelixis, a Bay Area biotech company that develops cancer drugs.

The study will compare this option with using only regorafenib, which is already used in the treatment of colon cancer. The trial began in September and is expected to conclude in February 2026.

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