Hunting Head and Neck Cancer Cells


ATLANTA. (Ivanhoe Newswire) – Head and neck cancers are the sixth most common cancers worldwide, in large part due to the presence of the HPV virus. Now, researchers are testing an immunotherapy treatment they say is highly effective for patients with cancer that spreads or comes back.

Sixty-six-year-old Leonard Monteith led a healthy lifestyle. That’s why sudden problems with his mouth caught his attention.

“I noticed that when I would stick my tongue out it would deviate to one side and I thought, that’s not right,” Monteith told Ivanhoe.

Doctors found an inch-wide tumor at the base of Monteith’s tongue. He was diagnosed with HPV positive cancer.

Nabil Saba, M.D., FACP, a medical oncologist at Emory University Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, explained, “The traditional treatment for head and neck cancer is really toxic and exhaustive and leads to side effects that are very significant.”

After treatment, Monteith’s cancer went away for six months, but then it came back in his lungs. Dr. Saba is a nationally-known expert in the treatment of head and neck cancers. He thought Monteith would be a good candidate for a new therapy.

“Immunotherapy is really, I think, a complete game changer,” said Saba.

Dr. Saba said two separate immunotherapy drugs are showing real promise. A drug called Nivolumab blocks the cancer receptors, allowing the body’s immune system to fight the cancer. Another drug, Pembrolizumab also works in a similar way. Because the trials are ongoing, Dr. Saba can’t say which specific drug Monteith was on.

Dr. Saba told Ivanhoe, “He had very good response to the treatment, to the point where we could not see any more lung lesions on the scan.”

Monteith has been improving for three years, but he knows his condition could change, without warning.

“I just live my life as I think I would have anyway,” said Monteith.

Doctors say the survival rates for patients who continued on Nivolumab were twice of those who did not take the immunotherapy drug. Twenty percent of the patients on the drug had their tumors shrink.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Supervising and Field Producer; Milvionne Chery, Assistant Producer; Roque Correa, Editor and Videographer.

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BACKGROUND: Cancers that are known collectively as head and neck cancers usually begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck (for example, inside the mouth, the nose, and the throat). These squamous cell cancers are often referred to as squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck. Head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands, but salivary gland cancers are relatively uncommon. The symptoms of head and neck cancers may include a lump or a sore that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty in swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice. Head and neck cancers account for approximately 4% of all cancers in the United States. These cancers are more than twice as common among men as they are among women. Head and neck cancers are also diagnosed more often among people over age 50 than they are among younger people.

NIVOLUMAB: The treatment plan for an individual patient depends on a number of factors, including the exact location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the person’s age and general health. Treatment for head and neck cancer can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of treatments. There are also immunotherapy treatments available: the two checkpoint inhibitors nivolumab and pembrolizumab. Nivolumab is approved to be used alone or with other drugs to treat melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, renal cell carcinoma (a type of kidney cancer), urothelial carcinoma (a type of bladder cancer), and of course squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck that has metastasized or recurred in patients whose disease got worse during or after treatment with platinum chemotherapy.

PEMBROLIZUMAB: Pembrolizumab is the generic name for the trade drug name Keytruda, and is a monoclonal antibody. Monoclonal antibodies are a relatively new type of “targeted” cancer therapy. To make anti-cancer monoclonal antibodies in the laboratory, scientists analyze specific antigens on the surface of cancer cells. Then they create a specific antibody that will attach to the target antigen on the cancer cells. Since monoclonal antibodies target only specific cells, they may cause less toxicity to healthy cells. Monoclonal antibody therapy is usually only given for cancers in which antigens have been identified already. Pembrolizumab is given as an intravenous injection through a vein over 30 minutes every 3 weeks. Both drugs are FDA approved, but the trial that carries the higher burden of proof for the use of these drugs in head and neck cancer is the Checkmate 141 trial with nivolumab.


Winship Cancer Institute



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