United Kingdom

Thousands of Britons with mouth cancer will be spared chemotherapy thanks to immune-boosting drug

Thousands of Britons with deadly mouth cancer will now be spared gruelling chemotherapy thanks to an immune-boosting drug.

The treatment, given the green light by health chiefs last week, offers fresh hope to patients whose cancer has either spread or deemed inoperable.

Currently, these patients have two options to prolong their life – chemotherapy and weekly infusions of potent cancer drugs, which often leave patients debilitated and confined to bed for the short time they have left.

But now immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab can help some patients with the disease live up to 30 per cent longer than they would with chemotherapy, with 50 per cent fewer side effects.

Last week's ruling by UK health watchdog NICE, which was based on the results of final-stage international trials, permits the treatment not only for advanced mouth cancer but also cancers of the nose, sinuses and salivary glands, known collectively as head and neck cancers.

The treatment, given the green light by health chiefs last week, offers fresh hope to patients whose cancer has either spread or deemed inoperable. Pictured: Stock image

Doctors must first test patients' tumours for a protein called PD-L1, which limits the immune system's ability to find and destroy the cancer.

Immunotherapy drugs such as pembrolizumab blocks PD-L1, helping the body's fighter cells to attack tumours.The majority of people with advanced head and neck cancer will test positive for PD-L1.

Roughly 12,000 Britons are diagnosed with these cancers every year – mostly men over the age of 70.

In the majority of cases, head and neck cancers are spotted at a late stage as they are often mistaken for other less serious conditions.

By the time they are diagnosed, the cancer has spread to other nearby tissues and prognosis is poor, with many surviving just six months.

Researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research who trialled the new drug discovered that some patients lived for more than a year following pembrolizumab treatment.

Immunotherapy drugs such as pembrolizumab blocks PD-L1, helping the body's fighter cells to attack tumours.The majority of people with advanced head and neck cancer will test positive for PD-L1. Pictured: Stock image

Pembrolizumab is already used widely on the NHS to treat skin, bladder and small cell lung cancers.

Professor Kevin Harrington, consultant clinical oncologist at The Royal Marsden Hospital in London, welcomed the decision. He said: 'Pembrolizumab can improve survival, while avoiding some of the most challenging side effects.'

Prof Harrington said he was 'disappointed' that health chiefs did not extend approval for combination therapy – using pembrolizumab alongside chemotherapy, which is shown to have the most significant impact on survival. 

He remains 'hopeful' that NICE may go further and fund combination therapy in the future, for those whom it is appropriate.

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