The Royal Marsden

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.

Consultant Clinical Oncologist and drug trial leader Professor Kevin Harrington

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 121 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 nivolumab experienced serious side effects, yet 35% did so after receiving chemotherapy.

The trial was led in the UK by Professor Kevin Harrington, Consultant Clinical Oncologist at The Royal Marsden and Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Professor Harrington said: “Nivolumab could be a real game-changer. This trial found that it can greatly extend life among a group of patients who have no existing treatment options, without worsening quality of life.”

Nivolumab: three facts

  • As an immunotherapy drug, nivolumab harnesses the power of the immune system to defeat cancer
  • When used in combination with ipilimumab, another immunotherapy drug, nivolumab has been shown in clinical trials to halt tumour growth in 58% of patients with advanced melanoma for almost a year
  • nivolumab is also being trialled in other tumour types, including lung, bladder and kidney cancers and Hodgkin lymphoma