Immunotherapy can help stop head and neck cancer, study finds

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A recent clinical trial dubbed the KESTREL study has illuminated the potential of immunotherapy in managing head and neck cancers, particularly in offering prolonged responses and reducing side effects compared to existing standard treatments.

Immunotherapy: A Ray of Hope for Some Cancer Patients

In the realm of cancer treatments, immunotherapy is emerging as a beacon of hope for some. This treatment harnesses the body’s immune system to recognize and combat cancer cells.

Durvalumab, an immunotherapy drug used alone or in combination with another immunotherapy named tremelimumab, has shown to stave off the growth and spread of certain head and neck cancers, particularly for patients whose tumors demonstrated sensitivity to immunotherapy.

The KESTREL trial enrolled 823 patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer originating in the mouth or throat.

Participants, who were previously untreated, were assigned to one of three treatment pathways: durvalumab with tremelimumab, durvalumab alone, or a conventional treatment regimen known as EXTREME, which combines two chemotherapy drugs with a targeted therapy called cetuximab.

Results revealed that for those patients whose tumors initially responded to durvalumab or the combination of durvalumab and tremelimumab, nearly half maintained that response after a year, compared to only about one in ten for those responding to the EXTREME regimen.

This suggests that immunotherapy might prolong the beneficial response for a subset of patients.

Weighing Benefits Against Drawbacks

However, the journey toward embracing immunotherapy as a standard treatment for head and neck cancers is not without roadblocks.

The trial did not achieve its primary goal of enhancing overall survival compared to the conventional EXTREME regimen, with median overall survival times being quite similar across all treatment groups.

Moreover, while fewer patients experienced severe side effects with durvalumab or its combination with tremelimumab compared to the EXTREME regimen (8.9% and 19.1% versus 53.1%, respectively), the overall survival did not showcase a notable difference.

Some of these side effects included infections, disruptions in blood and lymphatic system functionality, and gastrointestinal issues like nausea and diarrhea.

Stepping Stones to Tailored Cancer Treatments

Despite not meeting its primary endpoint, the KESTREL trial has provided valuable insights into the applicability of immunotherapy in the treatment of relapsed and/or metastatic head and neck cancer, underscoring the potential for a more personalized treatment approach.

Researchers and clinicians at The Institute of Cancer Research’s Centre for Translational Immunotherapy are now invested in deciphering the full capability of immunotherapy to expand its benefits to a wider array of cancer patients.

Professor Kevin Harrington, involved in the KESTREL trial, highlighted the urgent need to delve deeper into the workings of immunotherapies and the biological factors that dictate which patients might derive benefit.

In essence, the findings of the KESTREL study pave the way for additional research, with a lens on ensuring that more patients can benefit from improved quality of life and, in some instances, potentially curative outcomes through immunotherapy.

Through meticulous research and understanding the biology that stipulates who can benefit, the hope is to unleash the full potential of immunotherapy, offering more patients a prospect for enhanced quality of life and potential cures.

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The research findings can be found in the Annals of Oncology.

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