Immunotherapy Extends Life of Neck and Head Cancer Patients


A large international clinical trial involving 97 medical centers across 20 countries determined that Pembrolizumab can significantly improve patient survival rates. The drug is part of a new wave of therapies that boosts the body’s own natural defenses in order to fight cancer.

One of the patients, Derek Kitcherside, 69, described his experiences, noting that: “It’s remarkable how I’ve responded to the drug and I don’t think I’d be here without it”.

Back in 2011, Derek was diagnosed with larynx cancer that was treated with standard therapies and quickly went into remission. Unfortunately, only a few years later, worrying symptoms started resurfacing. Scans showed several squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck, inoperable and most likely incurable.

The standard treatments of radiotherapy and chemotherapy weren’t really doing much for me this time around. My tumours were still getting larger and I was told there wasn’t much more the doctors could do”.

Luckily, he was able to enroll in the trial of a new and experimental drug. Overall, testing was considered successful and Pembrolizumab exhibited significant benefits, with 37% of patients surviving for a year of more, compared to only 26.5% on standard care.

More encouraging was the fact that a group of patients responded extremely well, having their cancer partially or completely disappear, and still being disease-free three years after first receiving treatment.

The resulting study was published in The Lancet and notes that “clinically meaningful prolongation of overall survival and favourable safety profile of pembrolizumab in patients with recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma support the further evaluation of pembrolizumab as a monotherapy and as part of combination therapy in earlier stages of disease”.

Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research and one of the trial leaders remarked that “Immunotherapies are already revolutionising treatment for several cancer types, and I am excited to see the new drug pembrolizumab now showing benefit in advanced head and neck cancer”.

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