Oral squamous cancer cell (white) being attacked by two cytotoxic T cells (red), NIH

From “positive trends in survival” to “completely eradicated,” the results from a phase III cancer trial has oncologists and patients in the UK excited.

An innovative combination of two immunotherapy drugs were shown to extend the life of patients with metastatic or relapsed head and neck cancer without forcing them to endure extreme chemotherapy.

Around 12,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with head and neck cancer per year, often at a late stage. In the U.S. in 2018, it was 46,000 and climbing.

While not baring statistically significant findings, the trial, funded by pharma firm Bristol Myers Squibb and conducted at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation, led to at least one miraculous recovery.

After 77-year-old Barry Ambrose, from Bury St. Edmunds, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017, which had also spread to his lungs, he was told by his local hospital that palliative care was his only option. After hearing about the trial, he took part, and after eight months his cancer completely disappeared.

“When the research nurses called to tell me that, after two months, the tumor in my throat had completely disappeared, it was an amazing moment, Barry recounts in a statement. “While there was still disease in my lungs at that point, the effect was staggering. In fact, I was doing so well on the trial I was allowed to pause it in November 2018 to go on a Caribbean cruise with my wife.”

Kinder smarter treatments

The drugs nivolumab and ipilimumab didn’t always lead to cures like in Ambrose, but conferred upon late-state head and neck cancer patients on average three more months of side-effect free survival, when compared with traditional chemotherapy, a result that while not statistically significant, is clinically relevant by all measures.

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The average survival time was 17 months, the longest ever-achieved in late-stage head and neck cancer patients.

“Our trial shows the immunotherapy combination achieved the longest median overall survival ever seen in patients with relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancer,” said Professor Kevin Harrington, a Consultant Clinical Oncologist at Royal Marsden who helped organized the trial.

“We will need to do longer follow-up to see whether we can demonstrate a survival benefit across all patients in the trial.”

Furthermore, the lack of extreme chemotherapy, and the often debilitating side-effects like nausea, tiredness, and difficulty breathing, means patients got to at least make a go of living their life to the fullest while they had the time.

“Immunotherapies are kinder, smarter treatments that can bring significant benefits to patients with advanced head and neck cancer—for example, by sparing them some of the difficult side effects of chemotherapy,” said Professor Kristian Hellin, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London.

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“These are promising results and demonstrate how we can better select the patients who are most likely to benefit from immunotherapy treatment.”

“When I was told about the trial by Professor Harrington, I didn’t hesitate to join—what did I have to lose? It turned out to be a lifeline,” said Ambrose. “Although I had to make bi-weekly trips from Suffolk to the hospital for the treatment, I had virtually no side effects and was able to carry on as normal doing the things I love—sailing, cycling, and spending time with my family.”

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