What could perhaps be a trump card in this fight against cancer, the European Cancer Congress says that two new immunotherapy drug show promise. These drug are called nivolumab and ipilimumab. The process of immunotherapy involves giving the immune system more power to eliminate the cancer cells in the body. Here are some of the ways in which it sparked wonders in combating some illness which are notorious for being hard or impossible to cure.1 2
Written in the New England Journal of Medicine, a drug trial was conducted using nivolumab on over 350 patients, of which the 36% who were treated with this immunotherapy drug, survived a year longer compared to the 17% who were only getting chemotherapy. Head and neck cancer being one of the hardest to prolong life, it was a surprise that the drug made patients with it, survive longer, while showing fewer side effects.
Likewise in another trial, out of 94 patients who suffered from late-stage kidney cancer, the tumors in 40% of them shrunk after taking nivolumab combined with another drug, ipilimumab.
The way nivolumab and ipilimumab work is by interfering with the communication paths or chemical signals used by the cancer to influence the immune system into thinking that they are not harmful tumors but normal healthy tissues. This way the immune system then knows better, stops overproducing the white-blood cells which get further infected by the cancer, and instead fight against the manipulative tumors by themselves.
Patients with tumors which tested positive for the human papillomavirus (HPV), also showed signs of shrunk tumors and survived a little longer after taking nivolumab for around 9 months and getting chemotherapy for about 4.5 months.
1 out of 10 are said to have no trace of their cancer remaining as opposed to the 5% of cancer patients who showed tumor reduction only a long while after chemotherapy.
However, nivolumab and ipilimumab have only been sanctioned to treat dermatology or skin cancer, by the NHS, who are rapidly increasing its usage.
Those in their late-stages of cancer, where treatment is usually resisted by the tumors, are usually estimated to live lesser than six months. And with around 12000 people in UK diagnosed with kidney cancer every year, statistics suggest that a little above 10 people perish from the disease every single day.
An example is of 64-year-old Peter Waite who could even continue his job as a motor technician while he was getting combined immunotherapy i.e. taking nivolumab and ipilimumab. He was diagnosed with a kind of renal cancer, after recovering from kidney and lung cancer a few years back.
At first, he was in utter disbelief because he did not feel any pain at all, being diagnosed with such a serious disease. What’s more is he was told he only had three to five years to live.
Instead of chemo, Peter was put on the clinical trial for combined immunotherapy during the initial months of 2015. After four months of the trial, since he did not experience any side effects he could work while getting his treatment.
Shortly after, the scans of his kidneys and lungs showed that one of his tumors had shrunk in size and few others had stopped growing. After which, he did not need to take the drugs anymore but was still checked up and scanned every 12 weeks.
Just like Peter, many are grateful to this clinical trial because it doesn’t just give them a second chance to live or extends their life expectancy, but also gives them that sliver of hope when no other option exists without painful side effects. This goes especially to those with relapsing cancers, in the head and neck.
The chief executive of the Institute of Cancer Research, Professor Paul Workman, expressed that nivolumab was one of the newer forms of immunotherapy that has had an impact in cancer treatment, like never before. There is a hope that it will soon be mass regulated in UK and other countries without those pharmaceutical or bureaucratic delays getting in the way of saving lives of those with terminal cancers.