A new immunotherapy can greatly extend the lives of a proportion of people with advanced head and neck cancer, with some living for three years or more, reports a major new clinical trial.
The study, by The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, found that the drug – MSD’s Keytruda (pembrolizumab) - has been shown to have significant benefits for patients, with 37% of those who received it surviving for a year or more, compared with only 26.5% of those on standard care.
The drug was evaluated in a trial of nearly 500 patients with very advanced head and neck cancer that had spread around the body and already become resistant to platinum chemotherapy, the first-line treatment for the disease.
Some 247 patients were randomised to receive Keytruda and 248 to standard of care – chemotherapy or the targeted agent Erbitux (cetuximab).
When chemotherapy or targeted therapies stop working, treatment options for people with advanced head and neck cancer are limited, and they are normally expected to survive for less than six months.
Patients in the Keytruda arm survived for a median of 8.4 months, compared to 6.9 months with standard treatment. However, a minority of patients responded extremely well to Keytruda – 36 patients saw their cancer partially or completely disappear, and some are still cancer free three years after first receiving the drug.
“Our findings show that the immunotherapy pembrolizumab extends the life of people with advanced head and neck cancer overall, and in a group of patients has really dramatic benefits. It is also a much kinder treatment than those currently approved,” said Professor Kevin Harrington, professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and consultant at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.
“I would like to see pembrolizumab approved for use in the clinic, so that people with advanced head and neck cancer can be offered the chance of a longer life and improved quality of life.
“There is also an urgent need to work out how we can identify in advance which patients are likely to benefit, given that some of these people may do much better than they do on standard treatment.”
The trial was sponsored and funded by MSD, and the results are published in The Lancet.