The European Cancer Congress is set to hear about a breakthrough immunotherapy drug this weekend, which could have a profound impact on survival rates of patients with head-and-neck cancer, a disease described as "notoriously difficult to treat" by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR).

The drug, nivolumab, has become the first treatment to extend survival in a clinical trial of patients who had received unsuccessful chemotherapy treatment.

Figures for 2012 show there were approximately 11,000 new cases of head-and-neck cancer and 3,300 deaths in the UK. More than half of head-and-neck cancer patients relapse within 3-5 years.

Kevin Harrington, Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research, who led the UK trail said: "Nivolumab could be a real game-changer for patients with advanced head-and-neck cancer. This trial found that it can greatly extend life among a group of patients who have no existing treatment options, without worsening quality of life."

Professor Harrington, who is also a consultant at the specialist cancer treatment hospital the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust in London, added: "Once it has relapsed or spread, head-and-neck cancer is extremely difficult to treat. So it's great news that these results indicate we now have a new treatment that can significantly extend life, and I'm keen to see it enter the clinic as soon as possible."

The study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that double the number of patients receiving nivolumab survived a full year after treatment, compared to those who had received chemotherapy. It also increased average survival times in patients treated with chemotherapy to seven and a half months compared to slightly more than five months.

The normal life expectancy for people with relapsed, chemotherapy-resistant head-and-neck cancers is less than six months. The drug was also found to have fewer side-effects than existing treatments.

Nivolumab was also found to be even more effective on tumours which tested positive for human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus typically associated with cervical cancer, extending survival to just over nine months.

Professor Paul Workman, chief executive of the Institute of Cancer Research, London, also hailed the findings of the study and encouraged swift work to get the drug ready for mainstream use in cancer patients.

He said: "Nivolumab is one of a new wave of immunotherapies that are beginning to have an impact across cancer treatment. We hope regulators can work with the manufacturer to avoid delays in getting this drug to patients who have no effective treatment options left to them."

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head-and-neck cancers are said to be notoriously difficult to treat. iStock