GP Update Head, Neck and Brain Cancers

‘Game-changing’ drug doubles head and neck cancer survival

An immunotherapy drug has been hailed as a potential ‘game-changer’ after being found to improve survival for patients with a type of cancer that is notoriously difficult to treat

07 November 2016

Professor Kevin Harrington with a patient

In a phase III clinical trial involving 20 research organisations around the world, including The Royal Marsden, nivolumab became the first treatment to extend the lives of patients with relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancer in whom chemotherapy had failed. More than twice as many patients survived after one year of taking the drug compared with those treated with chemotherapy, and it caused fewer side effects than existing therapeutic options.

Of the 361 patients in the trial, 240 received nivolumab and the rest took one of three different chemotherapies. British patients received the chemotherapy drug docetaxel- the only NICE approved treatment for this advanced head and neck cancer.

After one year 36% of patients treated with nivolumab were still alive while 17% of those who received chemotherapy survived. In addition, only 13% of patients who took the nivolumab experienced serious side effects, yet 35% did so after receiving chemotherapy.

The trial was lead by Professor Kevin Harrington, Consultant Clinical Oncologist at The Royal Marsden and Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research.

It can greatly extend life amongst a group of patients who have no existing treatment options, without worsening quality of life.

Professor Kevin Harrington

He says: ‘Nivolumab could be a real game-changer. This trial found that it can greatly extend life amongst a group of patients who have no existing treatment options, without worsening quality of life.’

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