A new study in the UK suggests that some cancer patients get better results with a drug combination that allows them to avoid aggressive chemotherapy. The phase 3 trial involved about 1,000 patients with advanced head and neck cancer, according to a post by the Institute of Cancer Research. Instead of chemo, patients received a two-shot combo of the drugs nivolumab and ipilimumab. Researchers found generally that patients lived longer and suffered fewer side effects than those who received chemotherapy. However, they couched the findings in cautious language—the findings so far are "clinically meaningful," though not "statistically significant," and more research is needed.
Still, "these are promising results," ICR exec Kristian Helin tells the Guardian. "Immunotherapies are kinder, smarter treatments that can bring significant benefits to patients." The newspaper begins its coverage with a remarkable success story from the study. Barry Ambrose, 77, had been diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017 and joined the study as a test subject. Eight weeks after starting the biweekly treatments, he got surprisingly good news. "When the research nurses called to tell me that, after two months, the tumor in my throat had completely disappeared, it was an amazing moment," said Ambrose. "While there was still disease in my lungs at that point, the effect was staggering."
Ambrose went on to have chemo and surgery for the remaining cancer and is currently disease-free. The study, called CheckMate 651 and funded by Bristol Myers Squibb, suggests that patients whose tumors have high levels of an immune marker called PD-L1 fare particularly well with immunotherapy. As a whole, they lived three months longer than patients who received chemo, and their overall survival of 17.6 months is the highest recorded in a group with this type of cancer. "We will need to do longer follow-up to see whether we can demonstrate a survival benefit across all patients in the trial," says an oncologist involved with the study, per the Guardian. (Read more immunotherapy stories.)