New cancer treatment can eliminate tumors in patients with end-stage head and neck cancer, scientists have found.
In a landmark trial, a cocktail of immunotherapy drugs harnessed patients’ immune systems to kill their own cancer cells and caused “a positive trend in survival,” according to researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR ), London and the Royal Marsden. NHS Foundation Trust.
One patient, who was due to die four years ago, told the Guardian of the “unbelievable” moment nurses called him weeks after he joined the study to say his tumor was “completely gone”. The 77-year-old grandfather is cancer free and spent the last week cruising with his wife.
Scientists found that the combination of the drugs nivolumab and ipilimumab resulted in tumor size reduction in patients with end-stage head and neck cancer. In some, their cancer has completely disappeared, as doctors are amazed to find no detectable signs of illness.
The combination of the two immunotherapy drugs could prove to be an effective new weapon against several forms of advanced cancer, experts believe. Results from other combination drug trials have already suggested similar benefits for patients with end-stage kidney, skin and bowel cancer.
In addition to increasing the chances of patients’ long-term survival, the scientists said, the immunotherapy treatment also caused far fewer side effects compared to the often grueling nature of the “extreme” chemotherapy, which is. the standard treatment offered to many patients with advanced cancer. .
The results of the Phase 3 trial, involving nearly 1,000 dying patients with head and neck cancer, were early and not statistically significant, but were still “clinically significant,” the ICR said, some patients live months or years longer and suffer fewer side effects.
“These are promising results,” Professor Kristian Helin, director general of ICR, told The Guardian. “Immunotherapies are gentler, smarter treatments that can deliver significant benefits to patients. ”
Around 12,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with head and neck cancer each year and many will be diagnosed in advanced stages. There is an urgent need for better, gentler treatments for these patients that can keep them alive longer than the current standard of care.
When Barry Ambrose, 77, of Bury St Edmunds, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017, he was told it had already spread to his lungs – and that palliative care at the hospital was his only option.
But in a turn of events that saved his life, Ambrose was offered the chance to join the new study. “When I was told about the trial… I didn’t hesitate to register – what did I have to lose? It turned out to be a lifeline.
“Although I had to make bi-weekly trips from Suffolk to the hospital for treatment, I had virtually no side effects and was able to continue doing the things I love as normal: doing sailing, biking and spending time with my family. ”
About eight weeks after starting treatment, tests revealed that the tumor in her throat had been eradicated.
“When the research nurses called to tell me that after two months the tumor in my throat was completely gone, it was an incredible moment,” Ambrose said. “Even though there was still disease in my lungs at that time, the effect was astounding. ”
He then underwent chemotherapy, followed by surgery. He currently has no signs of illness.
“The treatment I have received at Royal Marsden is second to none and I am so lucky that they have continued to find a treatment that works for me – this is the gift that continues to give me,” said Ambrose. Last week he enjoyed a cruise off the coast of the UK with his wife, Sue.
The results of the trial show that the combination of immunotherapy had a particularly high success rate in a group of patients whose tumors had high levels of an immune marker called PD-L1.
Survival rates in people with elevated levels of PD-L1 who received the cocktail of immunotherapy were the highest ever reported in a first-line therapeutic trial of relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancer.
These patients lived an average of three months longer than those who underwent chemotherapy. The median overall survival for these patients was 17.6 months, the highest mean ever reported in this group of patients.
The researchers said they hope future results from the CheckMate 651 trial, funded by Bristol Myers Squibb, will show further benefits of the therapy in patients with advanced head and neck cancers.
“Despite the lack of statistical significance, these results are clinically significant,” said Professor Kevin Harrington, professor of biologic cancer therapies at ICR and clinical oncologist consultant at Royal Marsden, who led the CheckMate 651 trial. . “We will need to do a longer follow-up to see if we can demonstrate a survival benefit for all patients in the trial.”