According to a trial study by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, and the Royal Marsden NHS foundation trust, a combination of immunotherapy drugs called nivolumab and ipilimumab helped some patients with advanced head and neck cancers to live longer and also triggered far fewer side-effects compared with the often aggressive nature of chemotherapy, which is the standard treatment offered to many patients with advanced cancer.


The phase 3 trial results were gathered from around 1,000 dying head and neck cancer patients.

The study showed the combination of immunotherapy drugs harnesses and boosts the power of the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer cells.



Prof Kristian Helin, the ICR chief executive says, “Though the trial is still in its initial stage and not statistically significant but was still clinically meaningful”. “Immunotherapies are kinder, smarter treatments that can bring significant benefits to patients,”. The results were promising, with some patients being given more months or years of life and suffering fewer side effects.




 77-year-old Barry Ambrose, from Bury St. Edmunds, was diagnosed with throat cancer, which had also spread to his lungs, who participated in the trial was told that he only had four years to live. Just weeks after the treatment started, initial scans showed that his tumor completely disappeared, leaving doctors stunned.

He shares his experience –

“When I was told about the trial by Professor Harrington, I did not hesitate to join – what did I have to lose? It turned out to be a lifeline. Although I had to make bi-weekly trips from Suffolk to the hospital for the treatment, I had virtually no side effects and was able to carry on as normal doing the things I love – sailing, cycling, and spending time with my family”,

“When the research nurses called to tell me that, after eight weeks, the tumor in my throat had completely disappeared, it was an amazing moment. While there was still a disease in my lungs at that point, the effect was staggering. I was doing so well on the trial that I was allowed to pause it in November 2018 to go on a Caribbean cruise with my wife. The treatment I have received at The Royal Marsden has been second to none and I’m so fortunate they have continued to find the treatment that works for me – they are the gift that keeps on giving.”



The results of the trial show the combination of immunotherapy drugs resulted in a high success rate in a group of patients whose tumors had high levels of an immune marker called PD-L1.

Survival rates of those with high levels of PD-L1 who received the immunotherapy cocktail were the highest ever reported in a first-line therapy trial of relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancer. These patients lived more months longer than those having chemotherapy.

Researchers said, “We will need to do a longer follow-up to see whether we can demonstrate a survival benefit across all patients in the trial.”


Experts believe as the technology evolves, the combination of immunotherapy drugs could prove an effective new weapon against several forms of other advanced cancers. Results from other trials of the drug combination have previously suggested similar benefits for terminally ill kidney, skin, and bowel cancer patients.

While cancer is among the leading causes of death and suffering worldwide, this discovery breathes new hope and fresh air into further cancer research and treatments.


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