Head and neck cancer (HNC) is the sixth most common cancer worldwide, and the majority of available treatments are highly toxic chemotherapies.

HNC is typically diagnosed late, and has a high chance of recurrence and poor prognosis – for example oral cancer has one of the lowest five-year survival rates (under 50%) among the major types of cancer.

Limitations with chemotherapy

Most of the products marketed for HNC are generic forms of docetaxel, a chemotherapy that had its patent expire in 2014. Unfortunately chemotherapies often cause severe side effects, as they can’t differentiate between the cancerous or the healthy cells. Chemotherapy treatment is often paused or stopped altogether due to the toxicity, and the length of time it takes for the typically elderly patients to recover from the side effects.

A radically different landscape in development

The drugs currently being researched for HNC are aimed at providing less-toxic alternatives for patients. In stark contrast to the market, most of the drugs in development are targeted therapies, which do not damage healthy cells. Only 6% of the drugs in development are chemotherapies.

Signal transduction antagonists and targeted cytotoxics are popular drug types being researched, and there are no marketed drugs available at present in these classes. The high level of development activity for targeted therapies suggests they will become commonplace options for patients in the future.

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A positive outlook

There have already been a few targeted therapies released – the 2016 FDA approvals Keytruda and Opdivo have made a very positive impact on the treatment landscape. Additionally, these types of drugs generally face little or no competition from generic drug manufacturers, which acts as a strong incentive for drug developers in this area. All of this means that the future prospects for HNC treatment look highly promising, with targeted therapies promising to greatly reduce the suffering caused by cancer treatment.