Immunotherapy, the technique of using the immune system to fight off disease, is one of the most promising avenues for anticancer treatments. And this route seems to be paying off, as researchers announced a new immune drug that’s more effective than traditional chemotherapy against aggressive head and neck cancers.
The drug is called nivolumab, and belongs to a class of medicines called PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitors. Essentially this drug works by blocking a programmed death receptor in the body’s immune cells, allowing these cells to perk up longer and attack the tumor. The drug is marketed under the name Opdivo by Bristol-Myers Squibb, and is FDA-approved for the treatment of other cancer types, including melanoma, lung and kidney cancer.
"We don't have effective treatments for advanced head and neck cancers - these cancers are notoriously difficult to treat. So it's exciting that this phase III trial has been the first to show a significant survival benefit with an immunotherapy," said Kevin Harrington, Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and the senior study author. "Once it has relapsed or spread, head and neck cancer is extremely difficult to treat, with surgery and radiotherapy often impossible. So it's very good news for patients that these interim results indicate we now have a new treatment that works, and can significantly extend life."
In a phase III clinical trial, researchers compared nivolumab in 240 head and neck cancer patients versus 121 patients who were given the traditional chemotherapy. The team found, within one year, patient survival rate for nivolumab (36 percent) was more than doubled that of standard chemotherapy (17 percent). The results from this trial, called Checkmate-141, were reported in the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2016 in New Orleans.
"Nivolumab was not only more effective than chemotherapy for patients with head and neck cancer but also had fewer side-effects, and has the potential to significantly extend life and increase quality of life,” Harrington added. They reported side effects were seen in about 13 percent of patients on nivolumab, whereas over 35 percent of patients on standard chemotherapy had side effects.
Because its effectiveness was so apparent, the clinical trial ended early and patients on standard chemo treatments were given the option to switch to nivolumab.
“We are encouraged by the overall survival results seen with this investigational use of nivolumab versus three standards of care for patients with recurrent or metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, who often face poor survival rates. These findings are supportive of our Immuno-Oncology research goal to study potential treatment options for their ability to help patients with difficult-to-treat cancers achieve long-term survival,” said Jean Viallet, Global Clinical Research Lead, Oncology, Bristol-Myers Squibb.