A new cancer treatment can wipe out tumours in terminally ill head and neck cancer patients, scientists have discovered.
In a landmark trial, a cocktail of immunotherapy medications harnessed patients’ immune systems to kill their own cancer cells and prompted “a positive trend in survival”, according to researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, and the Royal Marsden NHS foundation trust.
One patient, who was expected to die four years ago, told the Guardian of the “amazing” moment nurses called him weeks after he joined the study to say his tumour had “completely disappeared”.
Scientists found the combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab medications led to a reduction in the size of tumours in terminally ill head and neck cancer patients. In some, their cancer vanished altogether, with doctors stunned to find no detectable sign of disease.
Combining the two immunotherapy drugs could prove an effective new weapon against several forms of advanced cancer, experts believe. Results from other trials of the drug combination have previously suggested similar benefits for terminally ill kidney, skin and bowel cancer patients.
As well as boosting the long-term survival chances of patients, scientists said, the immunotherapy treatment also triggered far fewer side-effects compared with the often gruelling nature of “extreme” chemotherapy, which is the standard treatment offered to many patients with advanced cancer.
The results from the phase 3 trial, involving almost 1,000 dying head and neck cancer patients, were early and not statistically significant but were still “clinically meaningful”, the ICR said, with some patients living months or years longer and suffering fewer side effects.
“These are promising results,” Prof Kristian Helin, the ICR chief executive, told the Guardian. “Immunotherapies are kinder, smarter treatments that can bring significant benefits to patients.”