Head and neck cancer immunotherapy drug prolongs life and is less toxic

Researchers say that immunotherapy could help neck and head cancer sufferers to live longer after a recent trial took place.

The drug pembrolizumab, was given to 882 patients from around the world who were diagnosed with advanced head and neck cancer. It managed to keep the cancers at bay for an average of two years. This is five years longer than being treated with chemotherapy. Patients also suffered fewer side-effects.

The study, published in The Lancet, found that it is a kinder and safer option and can keep patients alive for longer.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a treatment that does not kill cancer cells, but instead stimulates the body’s immune system to attack them.

It is already being used to treat a wide range of advanced cancers.

The drug is dispensed through a drip when a patient’s cancer has returned or is considered incurable.

The study produced varying effects though for those who participated in the trial. Although in some instances the treatment kept cancer at bay for over two years.

Of those who had advanced head and neck cancer who responded to the drug, 25% – their cancer shrank or stabilised for an average of 23 months.

Although more patients (36%) responded positively to standard chemotherapy treatment, the improvements lasted on average for only four and a half months.

Those with more aggressive, larger tumours were given the drug alongside chemotherapy to help slow progress of the disease. This kept the cancer at bay for an average of seven months.

Professor Paul Workman, from the Institute of Cancer Research, said that “this study is very exciting for two reasons – firstly because it shows that immunotherapy can have dramatic benefits for some patients with head and neck cancer when used as a first-line treatment, and secondly because the researchers have devised a test for picking out who is most likely to benefit.”

  • Around 12,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with head and neck cancer each year
  • Half are diagnosed at stage III or IV when it is much harder to treat
  • Most cases are linked to smoking and alcohol – the recent rise in cases seems to be linked to HPV (human papillomavirus)
  • This virus infects the skin and cells lining the inside of the body and can be spread through close skin-to-skin contact
  • Boys and girls are now being vaccinated against HPV at school, but it will be several decades before HPV stops being a risk factor


Text References

The Institute of Cancer Research. (2019). Major trial backs immunotherapy as standard first-line treatment for head and neck cancer. Accessible: https://www.icr.ac.uk/news-archive/major-trial-backs-immunotherapy-as-standard-first-line-treatment-for-head-and-neck-cancer. Last Accessed: 27 November 2019.

Roxby, P – BBC News. (2019). Cancer immunotherapy drug ‘less toxic and prolongs life’. Accessible: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-50507069. Last Accessed: 27 November 2019.

Whitehead, J – iNews. (2019). Cancer immunotherapy drug prolongs life and is less toxic, says major new trial. Accessible: https://inews.co.uk/news/health/cancer-immunotherapy-drug-pembrolizumab-cancern-research-chemotherapy-1320632. Last Accessed: 27 November 2019.