Science

Game Changing Immunotherapy Cancer Drug

By Kat Pooprasert

An immunotherapy drug presented at the European Cancer Congress has been dubbed as a potential “game-changer”.

In a study of head and neck cancer, it was discovered that patients taking Nivolumab survived for longer compared with those who were treated with chemotherapy. This could be potentially promising as head and neck cancer has very poor survival rates.

In another study, early data collected from 94 patients with advanced kidney cancer showed that the double hit of Nivolumab and Ipilimumab resulted in a reduction in tumor size in 40% of patients. Moreover, of these patients, one in ten had no sign of cancer remaining. This is significant when compared to standard therapy with 5% of patients showing tumor reduction.

Advanced kidney cancer is a widespread medical condition, with around 12,000 people diagnosed in the UK each year, and an average of 12 people die from the disease each day.

Peter Waite was one of the patients who started receiving combined immunotherapy (Nivolumab and Ipilimumab) in a clinical trial in early 2015 after doctors discovered he had a type of renal cancer several years after recovering from kidney and lung cancer. Due to his medical condition, he was told he probably had three to five years left to live.

Instead of being treated with chemotherapy, as one of the usual treatment methods, he received both immunotherapy drugs for four months and experienced virtually no side effects. These medications allowed him to continue working as a motor technician throughout the treatment.

After performing kidney and lung scans, it was discovered that one of his tumors has shrunk and two others have not shown any further growth. Commenting on his treatment, he described how “I feel a bit of a fraud having terminal cancer because I haven’t been in pain at all” and that he “feel[s] very privileged to have had the opportunity to go on the trial”.

Peter is now no longer taking the drugs but is being monitored every 12 weeks with scans.

As of yet, Nivolumab has only been approved for treating skin cancer and in June, it has become one of the fastest medicines every approved for NHS use, in combination with Ipilimumab for the same cancer.

Nivolumab and Ipilimumab both interrupt the chemical signals that cancers use to ‘convince’ the immune system that they are healthy tissue.

Professor Kevin Harrington of the Institute of Cancer Research and consultant at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London led the head and neck cancer rial and described how Nivolumab could be a real “game changer’ for patients with advanced head and neck cancer.

He commented, “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”. He also explained how head and neck cancer is extremely difficult to treat once it has relapsed or spread, and that “it’s great news that these results [from the studies] indicate we now have a new treatment that can significantly extend life, and [he is] keen to see it enter the clinic as soon as possible.”

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