Researchers believe nivolumab can extend the lifespan of ‘relapsed’ patients diagnosed with head and neck cancer – particularly those whose tumours are linked to HPV.
The drug is currently licensed for the treatment of advanced melanoma skin cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer in the UK but could have potential for use against other, currently untreatable forms of the disease.
Falling into this category are advanced head and neck cancers resistant to chemotherapy. These cancers are notoriously difficult to treat and on average, patients generally survive for less than six months.
But clinical trials found that after a year of treatment, 36% of patients treated with nivolumab were still alive compared with 17% of those given standard chemotherapy. Trial participants treated with nivolumab typically survived for 7.5 months, and some for longer, compared to 5.1 months for patients on chemotherapy.
Patients whose tumours tested positive for HPV, which is linked to cervical cancer and may be spread by oral sex, did especially well. They typically survived for 9.1 months, compared to 4.4 months when treated with chemotherapy.
Speaking on behalf of the Institute of Cancer Research, London, who led the British arm of the international trial, Professor Kevin Harrington said: ‘Nivolumab could be a real game changer for patients with advanced head and neck cancer.
‘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.
‘Once it has relapsed or spread, head and neck cancer is extremely difficult to treat. So it’s great news that these results indicate we now have a new treatment that can significantly extend life, and I’m keen to see it enter the clinic as soon as possible.’
However, the treatment will have to be approved by the European Medicines Agency and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (which vets new therapies in England and Wales for cost-effectiveness) before it can be offered on the NHS.
Nivolumab, which works by blocking signals from tumour cells that stop the immune system attacking, is a checkpoint inhibitor.
The findings were simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology conference in Copenhagen last month.