Immunotherapy drug could be ‘game changer’ for head and neck cancer patients

October 11, 2016 Providence Health Team

A drug studied by European researchers has the potential to give new hope to patients suffering from certain deadly head and neck cancers.

The drug, nivolumab, is in the emerging class of immunotherapy treatments against cancer. Such drugs put the body’s own immune system to work by stimulating it to specifically attack cancer cells. Nivolumab is approved in the United States as a treatment for some cancers, including melanoma, but not yet for head and neck cancer.

It is marketed under the name Opdivo by Bristol-Meyers-Squibb, which supported the recent study. The results were presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology Congress in Copenhagen and published simultaneously in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Nivolumab could be a real game-changer for patients with advanced head and neck cancer,” said UK trial lead Kevin Harrington, professor of biological cancer therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research in London. “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.”

After a year in the study, 36 percent of the patients treated with nivolumab were still alive, compared with 17 percent who didn’t receive the drug.

Dismal prognosis for many head and neck cancer patients

Currently, patients with head and neck cancers for whom chemotherapy has failed have no treatment options that improve their survival rate. Such patients are expected to live less than six months, according to The Institute of Cancer Research.

Head and neck cancers account for about 3 percent of all cancers in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute, one of the National Institutes of Health. They may form in the oral cavity, the throat, the larynx, the nasal cavity or the salivary glands.

The Institute of Cancer Research lists a number of risk factors for head and neck cancers, including:

  • Alcohol use
  • Tobacco use, including smokeless tobaccos
  • HPV infection
  • Betel quid, a combination of betel leaf, areca nut and lime, sometimes mixed with tobacco, that is chewed; commonly used in Southeast Asia
  • Maté, a tea-like beverage common in South America
  • Consumption of certain salted or preserved foods during childhood
  • Poor oral health
  • Exposure to certain substances, including asbestos and wood dust
  • Radiation to the head and neck for cancer or noncancerous conditions
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection

Symptoms may include lumps or sores that don’t heal, a persistent sore throat and difficulty swallowing or breathing.

Currently treatment plans vary depending on where the cancer is located, the patient’s age, the stage of the cancer and other factors.

To learn more

The study, “Nivolumab for Recurrent Squamous-Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck,” was published by the New England Journal of Medicine.

The Institute of Cancer Research wrote a story about the study with the headline “’Game-changing’ immunotherapy doubles head and neck cancer survival.

The Providence Cancer Institute in Portland, OR is also conducting cutting edge research around cancer immunotherapy to find ways to harness the power of the immune system to cure cancer.  

The National Institute of Cancer has considerable information about causes, symptoms, diagnoses and treatments on its Head and Neck Cancers page.

Immunotherapy is a promising method of treating cancers. We recently told the story of Chuck Howard, who was afflicted with advanced melanoma, a deadly cancer that caused multiple tumors in his body. His life was extended and his outlook improved following a Providence trial immunotherapy treatment.

If you’d like help from a Providence cancer specialist, you can find a cancer center near you, here.

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