A ‘game changing’ cancer treatment is far kinder to victims than chemotherapy, according to research published last night.
Patients treated with immunotherapy enjoyed a vastly improved quality of life, suffering fewer side effects such as pain and loss of appetite.
But the drugs, hailed as a new era in the fight against cancer, were rejected for NHS funding in April.
Immunotherapy has already proven hugely effective against some deadly cancers, extending the lives of terminal patients by up to five years. It works by reawakening the body’s immune system so it is able to specifically attack cancer cells.
By contrast, chemotherapy targets all fast-growing cells, including healthy ones, which can cause debilitating side effects.
The study, by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, involved 129 patients with head and neck cancers, which are particularly difficult to treat.
Some were given chemotherapy while others received nivolumab, a type of immunotherapy administered in a drip every two weeks.
Both groups were assessed at nine and 15 weeks into treatment and those on nivolumab were in significantly less pain and did not suffer as much from fatigue, nausea and weight loss.
With many of these patients terminally ill and determined to enjoy their final months as much as possible, the findings – published in the Lancet Oncology journal – represent a major breakthrough.
In January, the same research team found this form of immunotherapy doubled the survival rate for head and neck cancer patients.Around 36 per cent were still alive a year after starting treatment, compared to 16 per cent of those on chemotherapy.
Despite this success, drugs watchdog Nice has ruled the £5,300-a-month treatment is not cost effective. The body will make a final decision later this year and campaigners hope the NHS will be able to negotiate a cheaper price with the US manufacturers Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Professor Kevin Harrington, lead researcher from the ICR and the Royal Marsden Hospital in London said: ‘Our research has found nivolumab really is a game-changing treatment for patients with head and neck cancer.
‘Not only does it extend survival – we have now shown that patients feel much better in the extra time that the drug grants them.
‘When immunotherapies first hit the clinic, there were concerns over side effects and the fact that they didn’t work for everyone. But in only two or three years we have become very good at managing the side effects they cause, and we are better able to select patients in whom these treatments are most likely to be effective.’
ICR chief executive Professor Paul Workman said: ‘Creating cancer treatments that can not only extend life but also minimise the impact of the disease on patients’ lives is a major aim of researchers.
‘So it’s great news that this trial has found that, as nivolumab greatly extends life among these patients, it also gives marked improvements in quality of life compared with current treatment options.
‘I hope that this drug will be now approved very soon for use on the NHS.’ Immunotherapy is a relatively new treatment which doctors only started using six or seven years ago. It has already shown huge promise for forms of cancer that are difficult to treat.
Some skin cancer patients who were told they had only a few months left have since returned to work and resumed normal lives after tumours shrunk.
Sunday Times journalist AA Gill, who died of lung cancer last December, wrote that he might have lived longer had he received nivolumab – which he called the weapon of choice for ‘every oncologist in the first world’.