There are about 12,200 new head and neck cancer cases in the UK every year, and many of these patients are diagnosed at advanced stages when the disease is very difficult to treat. The standard treatment currently offered to many patients with advanced cancer is “extreme” chemotherapy, which can have serious side effects. A recent medical breakthrough, however, could offer better, kinder treatments for these patients and increase their chances of survival.
As part of a landmark trial, a cocktail of immunotherapy medications employed patients’ immune systems to kill cancer cells in their body and prompted “a positive trend in survival,” according to scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, and the Royal Marsden NHS foundation trust.
A patient who was expected to pass away four years ago was elated to hear the good news that only weeks after he joined the study, his tumor had “completely disappeared,” he told The Guardian. The 77-year-old man is now cancer-free and spent and enjoyed last week on a cruise off the coast of the UK with his wife.
The new treatment consists of a combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab medications, which proved to reduce the size of tumors in the terminally ill head and neck cancer patients. In some cases, the doctors were surprised to find no detectable sign of disease, as the tumor vanished altogether.
In addition to boosting the long-term survival chances of patients, the treatment also prompted far fewer side effects compared with the often grueling nature of chemotherapy.
Though the ICR said the results from the phase 3 trial, involving almost 1,000 dying head and neck cancer patients, were early and not statistically significant, they were still “clinically meaningful,” with some patients living months and even years longer and suffering fewer side effects.
“Despite the lack of statistical significance, these results are clinically meaningful,” said Prof Kevin Harrington, professor of biological cancer therapies at the ICR, who led the CheckMate 651 trial. “We will need to do a longer follow-up to see whether we can demonstrate a survival benefit across all patients in the trial.”