A promising treatment for the most severe forms of head and neck cancer

A therapeutic antibody duo could be a promising alternative to heavy treatments for the most severe head and neck cancers. Patient survival appears to have improved, but these results are yet to be confirmed.

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Head and neck cancers group together different cancers that develop in the upper aerodigestive tract, the salivary glands, the pharynx, sinuses or nasal cavities. Most often, they take their roots in the squamous cells that form the lining of these cavities – this is called squamous cell carcinoma. Head and neck cancers account for about 4% of cancers diagnosed around the world every year. The oral cavity is the most affected area. And for good reason,alcohol and tobacco are the two main risk factors for these cancers. Human papillomavirus type 16 (HPV16), transmitted to them during sexual intercourse, is also the cause of head and neck cancer.

A duo of antibodies against cancer

In the most advanced cancers, recurrent or metastasized, the treatment is very difficult. Of them molecules chemotherapy drugs, Cisplatin / Carboplatin and Fluorouracil, are combined with a therapeutic antibody, Cetuximab. The researchersInstitute of Cancer Research are studying an alternative to this “extreme” treatment. With funds provided by pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb, they launched a clinical test in April 2016. The so-called CheckMate 651 aimed to compare the benefits of a cocktail of two therapeutic antibodies compared to conventional treatment. For several years they followed 947 patients with head and neck cancer expressing the PD-L1 marker. It is the target of Novilumab, one of the therapeutic antibodies tested, in cocktail with Ipilimunab. The results of phase 3 of these clinical trials were presented during theEuropean Society for Medical Oncology Virtual Congress (ESMO) which was held a few weeks ago.

An uncertain profit

The survival of patients treated with the two therapeutic antibodies is the highest measured, with a duration median of 17.6 months. Unfortunately, this trend is not statistically significant compared to the extreme treatment. However, they did not experience a lot of side effects following their treatment. ” Our test shows that immunotherapy combined resulted in the longest median survival ever seen in patients with relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancer. Despite the lack of statistical significance, these results are clinically significant. We will need to do a longer follow-up to see if we can demonstrate a survival benefit for all patients in the trial. “, Explains Professor Kevin Harrington at theInstitute of Cancer Research and member of this essay.

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