New Immunotherapy Treatment Brings Hope to Head and Neck Cancer Patients

A newly trialed combination of immunotherapy drugs could provide a better survival rate than chemotherapy in patients with head and neck cancers.

Research showed that when used in combination, two immunotherapy drugs helped some patients with advanced head and neck cancers to live longer when compared to aggressive cocktails of chemotherapy drugs and targeted antibody treatment, according to the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR).

The combination of immunotherapies nivolumab and ipilimumab, drugs designed to stimulate the patient's immune system to act against cancers, led to a "positive survival trend" in a group of patients when tested against "extreme" standard treatments. The patients in the trial seemed to have high levels of PD-L1 marker, a protein that prevents immune cells from attacking healthy cells in the body.

ICR points out that despite the trial yielding the highest survival rates ever reported in a first-line therapy trial of relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancers, the results are not statistically significant and require further investigation.

Researchers from ICR, the Royal Marsden NHS (National Health Service) Foundation Trust, and scientists from Greece and the U.S. presented results from the trial involving 947 patients at the European Society for Medical Oncology Virtual Congress (ESMO) in September.

"Our findings point towards a positive trend in survival when using a new immunotherapy combination for patients with head and neck cancer whose tumors are positive for the PD-L1 immune marker," said professor of biological cancer therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and consultant clinical oncologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, Kevin Harrington. "Our trial shows the immunotherapy combination achieved the longest median overall survival ever seen in patients with relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancer.

"Despite the lack of statistical significance, these results are clinically meaningful," he added.

Harrington goes on to add that in the trial patients, combining the immunotherapies nivolumab and ipilimumab seemed to be a better option than the aforementioned standard "extreme" treatment, having fewer side effects.

Bury St Edmunds (England) resident, Barry Ambrose, 77, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017. After the cancer had spread to his lungs, Ambrose was told by his local hospital that palliative care was his only option.

After he was given a second opinion at The Royal Marsden hospital, Ambrose joined the clinical trial in August of that year. He continued on the trial for two years and then switched to chemotherapy followed by surgery. Ambrose said that he is now cancer-free.

"When I was told about the trial by Professor Harrington, I didn't hesitate to join—what did I have to lose? It turned out to be a lifeline," Ambrose said. "I had virtually no side effects and was able to carry on as normal doing the things I love—sailing, cycling, and spending time with my family."

Ambrose added that he was even able to pause treatment in 2018 to go on a Caribbean cruise with his wife.

"When the research nurses called to tell me that, after two months, the tumor in my throat had completely disappeared, it was an amazing moment. While there was still disease in my lungs at that point, the effect was staggering," Ambrose said. "The treatment I've received at The Royal Marsden has been second to none and I'm so fortunate they've continued to find treatment that works for me—they're the gift that keeps on giving."

Discussing the results of the trial, chief executive of the Institute of Cancer Research, in London, professor Kristian Helin, said: "Immunotherapies are kinder, smarter treatments that can bring significant benefits to patients with advanced head and neck cancer—for example, by sparing them some of the difficult side effects of chemotherapy.

"These are promising results and demonstrate how we can better select the patients who are most likely to benefit from immunotherapy treatment."

Doctor examines patient's lymph nodes
Stock image of a doctor examining lymph nodes in a male patient. New research indicates that a combination of immunotherapy drugs could improve survival rates in head and neck cancer patients. megaflopp/Getty