Potential Immunotherapy for Head and Neck Carcinomas

Survival doubled in patients being treated with nivolumab, but the disease eventually progressed in most patients.

Findings from a recent phase 3 trial suggest that the immunotherapy nivolumab can double survival and improve quality-of-life in patients with treatment-resistant head and neck carcinoma.

"These exciting results indicate that there is a new standard-of-care option for a population of head and neck cancer patients with no other treatment options," said the trial's international co-chair Robert Ferris, MD, PhD.

The CheckMate-141 clinical trial included 361 patients with recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma who did not respond to platinum-based chemotherapy, according to the study presented at the 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting.

Patients were randomized to receive nivolumab or standard chemotherapy until tumor progression. After 12 months, researchers found that 36% of patients administered nivolumab were alive compared with 17% of patients receiving standard chemotherapy.

The nivolumab treatment group had twice the number of patients whose tumors shrank and whose disease had not progressed after 6 months compared with patients receiving standard chemotherapy.

Patients treated with nivolumab also reported one-third of the serious side effects that the chemotherapy group reported. Nivolumab patients also had a higher quality-of-life than patients in the standard treatment group.

Interestingly, patients whose tumors were positive for human papillomavirus (HPV) responded the most to treatment with nivolumab. Researchers are currently trying to identify biomarkers that will allow them to understand how drug resistance develops and how to create more effective treatments.

"Unfortunately, most patients in this trial still experienced a progression of their cancer, demonstrating that we still have a lot of work to do,” concluded Dr Ferris. “But, the future appears brighter than ever before because there is a new class of agents, immunotherapies, which we now know can prolong survival and improve quality of life, with few side effects, in head and neck cancer.”