New treatment for head and neck cancer gets approved

More than 1,000 patients are diagnosed with head and neck cancer in Scotland every year. Picture: contributed
More than 1,000 patients are diagnosed with head and neck cancer in Scotland every year. Picture: contributed
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Scottish patients will be the first in the UK to benefit from potentially life-extending immunotherapy treatment for head and neck cancer on the NHS.

The Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) have approved nivolumab for these types of cancer that are difficult to treat and often require many invasive and complex therapies. Studies have shown that double the number of patients treated with nivolumab were still alive after one year, compared with those treated with standard chemotherapy. Head and neck cancer was the sixth most common cancer diagnosis in Scotland in 2015 with 1,283 and was within the top ten cancer related deaths at 452 people.

Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK’s senior public affairs manager in Scotland, said: “Head and neck cancer is very difficult to treat once it has relapsed or spread, and options, including surgery and radiotherapy, are limited. So it is fantastic news that nivolumab will be available for some patients in Scotland with this devastating disease.

“Around 1,300 patients are diagnosed with head and neck cancer in Scotland every year.

“Nivolumab is a type of immunotherapy that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells, and this decision offers another treatment option to patients whose disease has progressed on or after chemotherapy.”

The SMC decision follows NICE not recommending the treatment for use in England and Wales in draft guidance issued earlier this year.

Dr Derek Grose, consultant clinical oncologist at the Beatson Glasgow, said the SMC decision was a “significant step forward” in how the disease is treated.

He added: “Advanced head and neck cancer is a debilitating and life-limiting disease that has a huge impact on a patient’s physical and mental wellbeing.

“Nivolumab is the first recent treatment to show increased survival rates in clinical trials compared to current standard therapy and just as crucially, it can provide an improvement in quality of life.”

There are more than 30 different types of head and neck cancer, categorised by the area in which the cancer originates.

Victor Lopes of Scottish charity, Let’s Talk About Mouth Cancer, said: “Knowledge of head and neck cancer amongst the general public is poor, and more than 50 per cent of patients will present with advanced disease.

“When it is detected at a late stage, treatment is intensive and patient survival poor. Nivolumab is the first therapy to bring about meaningful improvement in survival in decades and is a real game-changer in the treatment of advanced head and neck cancer.”