Missak Haigentz, Jr., MD, chief of hematology and oncology at Morristown Medical Center’s Carol G. Simon Cancer Center and medical director of Hematology and Oncology for Atlantic Health System, is leading a new study that will allow eligible head and neck cancer patients to get access to a type of immunotherapy (nivolumab, or Opdivo®) that is currently approved for treating a number of types of cancer. 

The phase 2/3 study is for patients who have a type of cancer of the back of the throat (oropharynx) caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) that has spread to nearby areas and lymph nodes and has a high chance of recurring after they have been treated with radiation and chemotherapy.  The study is funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

“This clinical trial will help show how effective this immunotherapy is at treating this increasingly common cancer,” said Dr. Haigentz.  “At Atlantic Health System, we have a number of clinical trials with therapies that work with the patient’s immune system, including this one, to attack their cancer cells.” 

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Drugs used in chemotherapy, such as cisplatin, work in different ways to stop the growth of tumor cells, either by killing the cells, by stopping them from dividing, or by stopping them from spreading. Radiation therapy uses high energy rays to shrink tumor cells. Immunotherapy with monoclonal antibodies, such as nivolumab, may help the body's immune system attack the cancer, and may interfere with the ability of tumor cells to grow and spread.

“Although most patients with HPV associated head and neck cancers can be cured with highly individualized combinations of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, patients with larger or more advanced stage tumors require an aggressive combination chemotherapy and radiotherapy and have a higher, “intermediate risk” of cancer recurrence and death.  We don’t yet know whether chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed by maintenance nivolumab therapy works better than chemotherapy and radiation therapy alone in treating intermediate-risk patients with HPV positive oropharyngeal cancer,” added Dr. Haigentz.  “That is why this study is so important.” This study complements the clinical and research expertise of the multidisciplinary treatment team at the Atlantic HPV Center, dedicated to the treatment, prevention and study of HPV-associated head and neck cancers. 

HPV is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancers -- primarily the tonsils, tonsillar crypt (folds in the tonsils), the base of the tongue and the very back of the mouth. Of the many types of HPV, HPV16 is the version most responsible for this cancer, affecting both men and women.

The study, available at Atlantic Health System’s Morristown Medical Center and Overlook Medical Center, is being conducted in the Atlantic Health Cancer Consortium, recently designated as one of only 32 NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP) community sites nationwide focused on bringing high profile federally-funded cancer research studies to people in their communities. Dr. Haigentz is the Principal Investigator of the NCORP, the first and only NCORP based in New Jersey.

To receive more information about this clinical trial, go to atlantichealth.org/cancer