The new therapy is called nivolumab, and in trials patients with head and neck cancer survived for longer than those who received chemotherapy. These types of cancer have very poor survival rates. The BBC reports that 36 percent of those treated with the drug nivolumab are alive after one year compared with just 17 percent who received chemotherapy. Even among the patient population who did not survive, those who were positive for the presence of HPV (human papillomavirus) survived an average of 9.1 months with nivolumab, compared with 4.4 months for those who were given conventional chemotherapy.
Some types of HPV cause changes in the cells of the cervix or to the lining of the mouth and throat (an effect called dysplasia.) The changed cells have an increased risk of becoming cancerous.
In addition, a second study has found that by combining nivolumab with a second drug shrank tumors in advanced kidney cancer patients. Here a review of 94 patients, diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer, showed that a combination of nivolumab and a second medication called ipilimumab resulted in a significant reduction in the size of tumours in 40 percent of the patients. These results have been reported to the European Society for Medical Oncology.
Nivolumab is marketed as Opdivo. It is a humanized IgG4 anti-PD-1 monoclonal antibody. The medication works by blocking a signal that would have prevented activated T cells from attacking the cancer. This means it allows the immune system to clear the cancer.
Immune therapy (or ‘immunotherapy’) “wakes up” a patient’s own immune system so it can fight cancer. Treatment uses substances either made by the body or in a laboratory to improve or restore immune system function.