Immunotherapy Drugs Treat Metastatic Cancers

cancer patient
Source: Freepik

Patients with relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancers survived longer after a combination of immunotherapy drugs than the first-line chemotherapy regimen.

In 2016, a team of researchers began the CheckMate-651 phase III trial. The study aimed to compare a combination of immunotherapy drugs with the EXTREME regimen in patients with recurrent or metastatic cancers. The team recently presented the results of their trial at the European Society for Medical Oncology Virtual Congress (ESMO) held last month.

The trial compared the benefits of a combination of nivolumab plus ipilimumab with the EXTREME regimen. Both nivolumab and ipilimumab are immunotherapy drugs and have previously shown success in treating melanomas and renal cancers. Researchers recruited almost 1000 participants for the trial. As part of the trial, half the participants received the immunotherapy combination, while the other half received the EXTREME regimen.

Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common cancer worldwide, causing more than 467,000 related deaths per year. Squamous cell carcinoma of head and neck (SCCHN) accounts for more than 90% of all head and neck cancers. Patients with metastatic or recurrent SCCHN have a poor prognosis and the current treatments further reduce their quality of life. The first-line treatment for the cancer is the EXTREME chemotherapy regimen consisting of cetuximab, cisplatin/carboplatin and fluorouracil. However, the EXTREME regimen also has extreme side effects such as nausea, anorexia, pain, and breathing problems. This further deteriorates the person’s quality of life.

Immunotherapies are kinder, smarter treatments that can bring significant benefits to patients with advanced head and neck cancer – for example, by sparing them some of the difficult side effects of chemotherapy.

Professor Kristian Helin, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London

The Kinder Treatment

The results showed that patients that received the immunotherapy combination had on average a three-month longer survival than those on the chemotherapy regimen. Patients with PD-L1 positive tumours had the longest survival rates when given immunotherapy treatment. Furthermore, these patients had fewer side effects; thus, acting as a ‘kinder’ option in terminally ill patients.

Our trial shows the immunotherapy combination achieved the longest median overall survival ever seen in patients with relapsed or metastatic head and neck cancer.

Professor Kevin Harrington, trial researcher

Despite the lack of statistical significance, the study authors believe the results of the trial are promising. They suggest further follow-up of the patients to assess the survival benefits across all trial participants.


Argiris A, Harrington K, Tahara M, et al. Nivolumab + ipilimumab vs EXTREME regimen as first-line treatment for recurrent/metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck: final results of CheckMate 651. Presented at: 2021 European Society for Medical Oncology Virtual Congress (ESMO)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here