A New Treatment with Less Side Effects for the Most Severe Head and Neck Cancers

Newly discovered therapeutic antibodies could be a promising alternative to the harsh treatments that are currently used for the most severe forms of head and neck cancer. Patient survival appears to have improved, with this new treatment but the results still need to be confirmed.

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Scan of Head Neck Cancer

Scan of Head Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers include a variety of cancers that develop in the upper gastrointestinal tract, salivary glands, pharynx, nasal cavities, or nasal cavities. They usually have their roots in the squamous cells lining these cavities – called squamous cell carcinoma. Head and neck cancers account for about 4% of cancers diagnosed each year worldwide. The oral cavity is the most affected area. Alcohol and tobacco are two of the main risk factors for these cancers. Human papillomavirus type 16 (HPV16), which is spread through sexual intercourse, also causes head and neck cancer.

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Anti-cancer antibody duo

The most advanced, recurrent, or metastatic cancers are very difficult to treat. Two chemotherapy molecules, cisplatin/carboplatin, and fluorouracil are combined with a therapeutic antibody, cetuximab. Researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research are investigating an alternative to this extreme treatment. With funding from the drug company Bristol Myers Squibb, they started a clinical trial in April 2016. The aim of the project, called CheckMate 651, was to compare the benefits of a cocktail of two therapeutic antibodies with those of conventional treatment. Over a period of several years, they followed 947 patients with head and neck cancer that expressed the PD-L1 marker. This is a target for Novilumab, one of the therapeutic antibodies tested in a cocktail with Ipilimumab. The results of these phase 3 clinical trials were presented at the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO) virtual congress.

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Uncertain benefits

Patients treated with both antibodies had the longest survival, with a median of 17.6 months. Unfortunately, this trend is not statistically significant compared to the extreme treatment. On the other hand, they did not experience too many side effects as a result of the treatment. “Our study demonstrated that combination immunotherapy achieved the longest median survival ever seen in patients with relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancer. Despite the lack of statistical significance, these results are clinically significant. We need to do longer follow-ups to see if we can show that all patients in the study survived longer” said Professor Kevin Harrington of the Institute of Cancer Research and a member of the study.

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Immunotherapy combination could be an alternative to ‘Extreme’ chemotherapy in some head and neck cancers

Study of Nivolumab in Combination With Ipilimumab Compared to the Standard of Care (Extreme Regimen) as First-Line Treatment in Patients With Recurrent or Metastatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck (CheckMate 651)



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