"Game-Changing" Immunotherapy Drug Doubles Cancer Survival Rates

Nivolumab stops cancer cells from avoiding detection by the body's immune system. Juan Gaertner/Shutterstock

An immunotherapy drug is being hailed as a “game-changer” by cancer researchers following a successful clinical trial. In the study, survival rates after one year were more than twice as high among patients who were treated with the drug – called nivolumab – than those who received chemotherapy.

Many cancers outsmart the body’s immune system in order to avoid being destroyed by it, which is why scientists are now increasingly focusing on immunotherapy – whereby the immune system is recruited to fight off pathogens – in the quest to defeat cancer. For instance, some cancerous cells give off a signal that prevents T-cells from attacking them, although since nivolumab blocks this signal, researchers had hoped it may help to heal patients.

To investigate, they recruited 361 patients with head and neck cancers, who had all failed to respond to platinum-containing chemotherapy. Typically, people in this condition tend to live for less than six months.

The study authors then treated 240 of these participants with nivolumab and 121 with one of three different types of chemotherapy, reporting their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine. Of those that received nivolumab, 36 percent remained alive after a year, compared to just 17 percent of those in the chemotherapy group.

Remarking on this finding, study co-author Kevin Harrington claimed that "nivolumab could be a real game-changer for patients with advanced head and neck 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.”

Overall, the average survival time for those treated with the drug was 7.5 months, compared with 5.1 months for those who received chemotherapy. Furthermore, only 13 percent of patients who were given nivolumab reported physical, social, or emotional side effects, as opposed to 35 percent of those in the chemotherapy group.

Interestingly, the drug was particularly successful at treating patients whose tumors tested positive for a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV), enabling these people to survive for an average of 9.1 months. In contrast, chemotherapy patients whose tumors were infected with HPV lived for just 4.4 months.

“It's great news that these results indicate we now have a new treatment that can significantly extend life, and I'm keen to see it enter the clinic as soon as possible,” added Harrington.

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