Study: Immunotherapy better than chemotherapy for subtype of head and neck cancer

November 30, 2018

A randomized clinical trial involving 97 medical centers in 20 countries, including Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health, found that treating patients who have chemotherapy-resistant head and neck cancer with the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab is more effective and less toxic than standard chemotherapy, reports an international team of researchers in the November 30 online issue of The Lancet.

Previous research had shown that pembrolizumab (Keytruda) was safe and effective for treating patients with recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma whose disease had progressed while on or after receiving standard chemotherapy. Data from this clinical trial called KEYNOTE-040, a phase III study sponsored by Merck & Co., the manufacturer of the drug, takes the research a step further by comparing the immunotherapy drug head-to-head to three go-to chemotherapy drugs currently used as standard treatment: methotrexate, docetaxel and cetuximab.

"We compared pembrolizumab against standard of care to see if it fulfilled the promise of early data for patients who are unlikely to do well on standard therapy," said Ezra Cohen, MD, professor of medicine at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and corresponding author on the study.

"In this trial, patients who received pembrolizumab alone had a higher response rate compared to those receiving standard chemotherapy while those responses lasted, on average, one-and-a-half years. Furthermore, the median survival at one year was markedly better. I feel it is safe to say that these types of therapies should be the new standard therapy for people with cancer that recurs and is resistant to therapy."

Pembrolizumab is an antibody that inhibits the abnormal interaction between the molecule PD-1 on immune cells and the molecule PD-L1 on tumor cells, allowing the immune cells to activate and attack tumors. Similar results were recently published for another anti-PD-1 drug, nivolumab (Opdivo). Both drugs should be considered by treating physicians for patients with this disease, said Cohen.

The study also pointed to potential biomarkers that can guide oncologists to determine which patients are most likely to respond to these anti-PD-1 drugs.

"It's fairly clear that patients whose tumors express PD-L1 are most likely to benefit from this type of immunotherapy drug," said Cohen, associate director for translational science at Moores Cancer Center and an internationally recognized physician-scientist who specializes in novel cancer therapies. "In this trial, overall survival was driven by PD-L1 expression. Only patients whose tumors expressed PD-L1 had a response to pembrolizumab and those responses tended to be durable."

Over a 17-month period, 247 patients were randomized to receive pembrolizumab and 248 patients were randomly selected by their physicians to receive one of the three standard therapies. The median overall survival for patients receiving immunotherapy was 8.4 months and 6.9 months for patients treated with standard care. Patients received treatment until their cancer progressed, they developed unacceptable toxicity, they withdrew or their physician removed them.

The median duration of response was 18.4 months in the pembrolizumab group, compared with five months in the standard therapy group.

Twelve months after initiating the trial, 37 percent of patients receiving pembrolizumab were alive compared to 26.5 percent of patients on standard therapy.
-end-
Co-authors include: Denis Soulières, Centre Hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal; Christophe Le Tourneau, Institut Curie, INSERM U900 Research Unit, Versailles-Saint-Quentinen-Yvelines University; José Dinis, Instituto Português de Oncologia do Porto Francisco Gentil; Lisa Licitra, Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori; Myung-Ju Ahn, Samsung Medical Centre; Ainara Soria, Hospital Universitario Ramón y Cajal; Jean-Pascal Machiels, Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc, Université Catholique de Louvain; Nicolas Mach, Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève; Ranee Mehra, Fox Chase Cancer Center; Barbara Burtness, Yale University School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Center; Pingye Zhang, Jonathan Cheng, Ramona F Swaby, Merck & Co; and Kevin J Harrington, The Institute of Cancer Research, The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, National Institute of Health Research Biomedical Research Centre.

This research was funded by Merck Sharp & Dohme, a subsidiary of Merck & Co. The funder contributed to study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, and the writing of The Lancet paper. The funder maintained the study database. All authors had full access to all the data in the study and had final responsibility for the decision to submit for publication.

Disclosure: Cohen reports grant support to the institution from Merck Sharp & Dohme for clinical research related to the submitted work and serving an advisory role for AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eisai, Merck, Human Longevity and Pfizer, all outside the submitted work.

University of California - San Diego

Related Cancer Articles from Brightsurf:

New blood cancer treatment works by selectively interfering with cancer cell signalling
University of Alberta scientists have identified the mechanism of action behind a new type of precision cancer drug for blood cancers that is set for human trials, according to research published in Nature Communications.

UCI researchers uncover cancer cell vulnerabilities; may lead to better cancer therapies
A new University of California, Irvine-led study reveals a protein responsible for genetic changes resulting in a variety of cancers, may also be the key to more effective, targeted cancer therapy.

Breast cancer treatment costs highest among young women with metastic cancer
In a fight for their lives, young women, age 18-44, spend double the amount of older women to survive metastatic breast cancer, according to a large statewide study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cancer mortality continues steady decline, driven by progress against lung cancer
The cancer death rate declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop in cancer mortality ever reported.

Stress in cervical cancer patients associated with higher risk of cancer-specific mortality
Psychological stress was associated with a higher risk of cancer-specific mortality in women diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Cancer-sniffing dogs 97% accurate in identifying lung cancer, according to study in JAOA
The next step will be to further fractionate the samples based on chemical and physical properties, presenting them back to the dogs until the specific biomarkers for each cancer are identified.

Moffitt Cancer Center researchers identify one way T cell function may fail in cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center researchers have discovered a mechanism by which one type of immune cell, CD8+ T cells, can become dysfunctional, impeding its ability to seek and kill cancer cells.

More cancer survivors, fewer cancer specialists point to challenge in meeting care needs
An aging population, a growing number of cancer survivors, and a projected shortage of cancer care providers will result in a challenge in delivering the care for cancer survivors in the United States if systemic changes are not made.

New cancer vaccine platform a potential tool for efficacious targeted cancer therapy
Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered a solution in the form of a cancer vaccine platform for improving the efficacy of oncolytic viruses used in cancer treatment.

American Cancer Society outlines blueprint for cancer control in the 21st century
The American Cancer Society is outlining its vision for cancer control in the decades ahead in a series of articles that forms the basis of a national cancer control plan.

Read More: Cancer News and Cancer Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.