Immunotherapy drug hailed as 'game-changer' in cancer treatment

LONDON • An immunotherapy drug has been described as a potential "game-changer" in the treatment of cancer, helping patients survive for longer or shrinking tumours in new studies whose results were presented at the European Cancer Congress.

In one study of head and neck cancer patients, the ones who took the drug, nivolumab, survived for longer than those treated with chemotherapy. In another study, combining nivolumab with another drug shrank tumours in advanced kidney cancer patients, reported the BBC.

Immunotherapy works by harnessing the immune system to destroy cancer cells.

Advanced head and neck cancer has very poor survival rates, but in a trial of more than 350 patients published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 36 per cent of patients treated with the immunotherapy drug were alive after one year, compared to just 17 per cent who underwent chemotherapy. There were also fewer side effects with immunotherapy.

The benefits were more pronounced in patients whose tumours tested positive for human papillomavirus, with patients surviving for 9.1 months with nivolumab compared to 4.4 months with chemotherapy. Usually, such patients are expected to live for less than six months.

Meanwhile, early data from the other study of 94 patients with advanced kidney cancer showed that a double hit of nivolumab and ipilimumab shrunk the tumours in 40 per cent of patients, compared with just 5 per cent of patients witnessing a reduction through standard therapy.

Of the patients treated with the immunotherapy drug, one in 10 had no sign of cancer remaining.

As of now, nivolumab has been approved only for treating skin cancer. Nivolumab and ipilimumab both work by interrupting the chemical signals that cancers use to convince the immune system that they are healthy tissue, reported the BBC.

Professor Kevin Harrington of the Institute of Cancer Research, who is a consultant at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London and who led the head and neck cancer trial, said that nivolumab could be a real "game-changer" for patients with advanced cancer.

"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 said.

Immunotherapy works by harnessing the immune system to destroy cancer cells.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline 'Immunotherapy drug hailed as 'game-changer' in cancer treatment'. Print Edition | Subscribe