The results, published in the British Journal of Cancer today, will provide fresh hope to the 7,000 women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year in the UK. They have a survival rate of just 29% after five years.
Currently, women whose tumours have returned have very limited options, with less than half responding to follow-up chemotherapy.
The Dutch study involved 98 women with ovarian cancer whose first-line chemotherapy had initially been successful, but who had later relapsed.
Researchers divided the women into three groups depending on the severity of their cancer and treated them with an intensive regime of cisplatin and another drug called etoposide.
The response rates of the two groups of women who were least ill to the new treatment were 92% and 91%.
This compares to a response of 50% and 20% to 30% with standard therapies.
Among the group of women who were most seriously ill, 46% responded to treatment, compared with less than 15% for current therapies.
Overall, 80% of the women’s tumours shrank and an unprecedented 43% showed a complete response, with all signs of their cancers disappearing.
Cisplatin and etoposide are already used in chemotherapy regimes for many cancers, but the new treatment used the drugs much more intensively than usual.
Usually, doctors give their patients several weeks to recover from the toxic side-effects of cisplatin, but in the new study the drug was given on a weekly basis, along with strong drugs to prevent nausea.
Study author Dr Ronald de Wit, of the Rotterdam Cancer Institute, said: “We were delighted by the success of the study. The new drug combination was highly effective at keeping women alive for longer, giving real hope to those who would otherwise have had very little.
“We were worried the women would be too ill to cope with the treatment, but in fact, they suffered relatively few side-effects. And since these drugs are readily available, there’s no reason why women shouldn’t start to benefit from them right away.”
Professor Gordon McVie, director general of The Cancer Research Campaign, said: “While current chemotherapy regimes are effective for some women with ovarian cancer, many relapse later and overall cure rates are improving only very slowly. These old drugs in a new regime will be a useful salvage.”
Sir Paul Nurse, director general of Imperial Cancer Research Fund, said: “We’ve been waiting for good news on ovarian cancer for some time, so the results of this study are very encouraging.”
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