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Olaparib shows promise for head and neck cancer

Researchers in the United States have released results from the world’s first clinical trial of the cancer drug olaparib tested in combination with two other treatments for a type of cancer called head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC).

Olaparib is currently approved to treat some types of ovarian and breast cancer, but researchers have always been hopeful that the drug could benefit many more patients. The results from the latest trial led to 72 percent 2-year survival in 16 patients on the trial, compared with an expected 2-year survival rate of about 55 percent for standard-of-care treatment. The patients involved in the trial were treated with radiotherapy, and a drug called cetuximab, alongside olaparib.

Dr Helen Rippon, Chief Executive of Worldwide Cancer Research, said: “We are delighted to see pioneering researchers finding innovative ways to use olaparib. Our supporters have such a close link to the drug. It was their support that helped fund the discovery research, led by British scientist Professor Steve Jackson in the 1990s, which ultimately led to the creation of olaparib. It’s fantastic to see the global impact a small piece of research can have.”

Dr David Raben, University of Colorado Cancer Center investigator and professor in the University of Colorado School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology, said in a press release:

"The traditional approach against this kind of cancer (HNSCC) uses cisplatin chemotherapy along with radiation. I had seen data suggesting that the combination of cisplatin and olaparib might be too toxic on patients' blood counts. So our team explored this alternative approach that we hoped would offer a more targeted treatment in this poor prognosis group".

"That's where olaparib and radiation come in," he says. "Ten years ago, I was on a sabbatical from University of Colorado, working for AstraZeneca in England. And I remember taking the train from Manchester to Cambridge to learn about this new drug from a small biotech company called Kudos Pharmaceuticals. It was a PARP-inhibitor, meant to keep cells from repairing damaged DNA. That's the drug we now call olaparib."

Kudos, the small biotech company mentioned by Dr Raben, was in fact the company set up by Professor Steve Jackson to develop olaparib. It’s remarkable the impact a piece of research can have. A small amount of money given to a scientist to understand how cells work on a molecular level sparked a drug discovery programme that produced a life-saving drug now available for thousands of patients. And as shown by the results of this new clinical trial, has inspired researchers around the world to find innovative ways to maximise the number of cancer patients that could benefit from olaparib.

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