New cancer treatment destroys tumours in terminally ill, finds trial

Scientists have found a new treatment for cancer that can eliminate tumours from terminally ill patients.
A combination of immunotherapy drugs harnessed the immune system of patients to kill their cancer cells in a landmark trial. This led to a positive trend of survival according to the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London and the Royal Marsden NHS foundation trust.

A patient who was supposed to die four years earlier told The Guardian about the moment nurses called him weeks later to inform him that his tumor had disappeared completely. The grandfather, 77, is now cancer-free. He spent last week on a cruise along with his wife.

Scientists discovered that a combination of nivolumab with ipilimumab medication led to a decrease in tumour size in terminally ill head and neck patients. Some patients had their cancer completely vanished, and doctors were stunned to discover no signs of disease.

Experts believe that the combination of two immunotherapy drugs could be a powerful new weapon against advanced cancers. Similar results have been reported in other studies of the drug combination for patients with terminally ill skin, kidney and bowel cancer.

Scientists believe that immunotherapy can increase long-term survival rates of patients. It also has far fewer side effects than extreme chemotherapy, which is the standard treatment for many patients with advanced cancer.

The phase 3 trial involved almost 1,000 patients with head and neck cancer. Although the results were not statistically significant, they were clinically meaningful. Some patients lived longer than others and suffered fewer side effects.

Professor Kristian Helin, chief executive of the ICR, said these are promising results. Immunotherapies offer kinder and smarter treatments, which can provide significant benefits for patients.

Head and neck cancer affects approximately 12,000 people in the UK each year. Many of these patients will be diagnosed in advanced stages. These patients require better and more compassionate treatments that will keep them alive for longer periods of time than current care.

Barry Ambrose (77), from Bury St Edmunds was diagnosed in 2017 with throat cancer. He was told it had spread to his lungs, and that hospital palliative was his only option.

Ambrose was able to participate in the new study after a miraculous turn of events. I accepted the offer to participate in the trial. What could I lose? It was a lifeline.

I was required to travel biweekly from Suffolk to the hospital to receive the treatment. However, there were virtually no side effects and I was able continue doing the things that I love, such as sailing, cycling and spending time with my family.

After eight weeks, scans showed that the tumor in his throat was gone.

Ambrose said that it was an incredible moment when the research nurses called me to inform me that the tumor in my throat had disappeared after two months. Although there was still some disease in my lungs, the effects were amazing.

Later, he was treated with chemotherapy and then had surgery. He has no signs or symptoms of any disease.

Ambrose said that the Royal Marsden provided me with the best treatment. They continue to find the right treatment for me and they are the gift that keeps giving. He enjoyed a cruise along the UK coast last week with his wife Sue.

The trial results showed that the combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy had a high success rate for patients whose tumors contained high levels of an immune marker called PD–L1.

The immunotherapy cocktail had the highest survival rates ever recorded in a trial of first-line therapy for metastatic or relapsed head and neck cancer.

On average, these patients lived three months longer than patients who received chemotherapy. These patients had a median survival rate of 17.6 months. This is the longest average reported for this patient group.

The researchers expressed hope that future results from the CheckMate 651 trial, which was funded by Bristol Myers Squibb and will reveal additional benefits for patients with advanced head or neck cancers.

These results, despite not being statistically significant, are clinically meaningful according to Prof Kevin Harrington, professor in biological cancer therapies at ICR and consultant clinical offcologist at Royal Marsden who was responsible for the CheckMate 651 trials. To determine if there is a survival advantage across all patients in this trial, we will need to continue to follow up.