In the UK, prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men. It’s also overtaken breast cancer in recent years to become the third most common type of cancer. That’s why any news when it comes to potential prostate cancer breakthroughs is always exciting. Immunotherapy has been revolutionising the treatment of cancer and now a team from the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Hospital in London have conducted a trial, the results of which they say are "spectacular" and a "big deal". The trial focussed on drugs that boost a patient’s immune system, saving the lives of some men with terminal prostate cancer. Immunotherapy works by helping a person’s immune system recognise and subsequently attack cancer cells. One of the study participants, Michael English, 72, was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005. Radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone-based therapies did not kill his cancer, however. Then, two years ago, he started taking the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab. Today, he is effectively cancer free, with scans no longer showing any signs of the tumour. However, it’s an approach that will not, unfortunately, help all men. In fact, only between 10% and 15% of patients had any response to the therapy at all. This is not something that’s unusual for immunotherapy. Nell Barrie, from Cancer Research UK, said: "The next step will be to find out how to tell which men will benefit from taking this drug. "This is important as although immunotherapy is exciting, it can have severe side effects".
The European Cancer Congress has heard that an immunotherapy drug is a potential "game-changer" for cancer patients; especially those suffering with head and neck cancer. In one study of head and neck cancer, more patients taking immunotherapy drug nivolumab survived for longer compared with counterparts who were treated with chemotherapy. Another study found that when combined with another drug, nivolumab reduced the size of tumours in advanced kidney cancer patients. The findings of the studies are welcome news in the battle against head and neck cancer, which historically has a very poor survival rate. In a trial of more than 350 patients, the results of which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 36% of patients treated with nivolumab were still alive after one year, compared to 17% of chemotherapy patients. The immunotherapy patients also experienced far fewer side effects. However, the benefits of nivolumab were even more pronounced for patients whose tumours had tested positive for HPV (human papillomavirus). These individuals survived for 9.1 months on average, compared to 4.4 months for patients treated with chemotherapy. Professor Kevin Harrington of the Institute of Cancer Research and consultant at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, who led the head and neck cancer trial, said immunotherapy drug nivolumab could be a real "game changer" for patients with advanced head and neck cancer. "This trial found that it can greatly extend life among a group of patients who have no existing treatment options, without worsening quality of life," he said.
Our immune systems are able to fight bacteria, viruses and microbes. Therefore, you'd like to think that they could play a vital role in the fight against cancer too. Over the past 30 years, immunotherapy has emerged and grown as a therapeutic strategy in the field of oncology. This new class of cancer treatment harnesses the power of the immune system and its unique properties to fight cancer in a way that is more powerful than many that have come before it. Immunotherapy is also an exciting weapon for fighting cancer because of the potential long-term protection it gives against the disease; the fact that it causes fewer side effects than other traditional therapies; and can benefit more patients with different types of cancer. With this in mind, a team in Toulouse is looking to build upon the already fantastic base that immunotherapy has to make it an even more potent cancer therapy. They are looking to discover which patients respond to the treatment best, and Dr. Michel Attal, managing director of the Cancer Research Centre of Toulouse, said: "This is just the beginning. In the coming years, all cancer patients will, at one time or another, be treated with immunotherapy."