21st Apr 2016

Checkmate for cancer

The trial of a new drug to treat head and neck cancers has been stopped.  You might think this is a bad thing, and it means the drug has not worked.

In fact the opposite is true and the trial has only been stopped because the drug, called Nivolumab, was proving so beneficial that it is now going to go straight for consideration to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) so it can hopefully be used in the NHS more quickly.

The findings from the trial were presented to the American Association for Cancer Researchconference yesterday (April 20th) and they have taken the head and neck (HN) cancer world by storm.

In my experience of more than 15 years in practice, this is the first time in decades that a new drug has been developed for the treatment of advanced head and neck cancers that has led to a major increase in survival rates.

Nivolumab looks to be a real breakthrough for the treatment of squamous cell carcinoma.

These type of head and neck cancers can be treated with platinum-based chemotherapy. However the problem is that if the cancer returns, patients are often resistant to further treatments.

No effective treatments have been approved for patients in this group for many, many years. The trial, fittingly called CheckMate-141, shows that Nivolumab, an immunotherapy agent developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb, has broken that deadlock.

I was one of a number of international experts who conducted the trial involving a total of 361 patients. After a year of treatment, our study showed that more than double the proportion of patients taking Nivolumab were alive (36% vs 16%) compared to those offered existing drug treatments. The trial was to have run until October, but the results have been so impressive that it is being fast-tracked for approval now. 

At last it seems we are getting cancer in check and let’s hope the new treatment is soon more widely available.

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