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Head and neck cancer

Our research helped get the drugs pembrolizumab and nivolumab approved for treating head and neck cancers – a smarter, kinder alternative to chemotherapy. We are also developing therapies that improve head and neck cancer patients’ quality of life through our research and clinical trials.

Meet our researchers

Our latest head and neck cancer news 

Our progress against head and neck cancer


Our researchers were some of the first to realise the promise of the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab for treating head and neck cancers.

Professor Kevin Harrington was involved in an international clinical trial that showed that pembrolizumab can extend the lives of patients with an advanced form of the disease – with some living for three years or more compared to standard care.

Along with our partner hospital The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, we led a clinical trial that found that pembrolizumab to be a better first-line treatment for people with returning head and neck cancer compared to standard chemotherapy.

Regulators in Scotland, Europe, the US and Japan have since approved pembrolizumab to treat head and neck cancer patients whose disease has returned. Our work was instrumental in establishing pembrolizumab as the go-to drug to treat these patients.

Changing clinical practice

We showed that the immunotherapy drug nivolumab almost tripled survival rates for those with advanced head and neck cancer – at a time when the only option was chemotherapy – and was far kinder for patients than the traditional approach.

Because of our work, nivolumab was made available on the NHS via the Cancer Drugs Fund in 2017 for patients whose head and neck cancer had progressed within six months of receiving chemotherapy.

I was treated very quickly after being diagnosed with tongue cancer, but it came back not long after that. Luckily there were more treatment options available for me, and now they think I’m going to be okay. 

- Judi Billing

Headshot of Judi Billing, white female, taken in a children's playground

Clinical trials

Our dedicated Urology and Head and Neck Trials team, led by Professor Emma Hall, carries out clinical trials for the treatment of head and neck cancers, as well as prostate cancer, testicular cancer and bladder cancer.

Take a look at all clinical trials currently being run for head and neck cancer.

Blood test predictors

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a known driver of head and neck cancer in some patients. Our scientists at the ICR and The Royal Marsden developed a blood test that can detect whether patients with HPV-positive head and neck cancer will have residual tumours, even after chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The test also identified patients who are more likely to respond better to treatment. This could reduce the number of HPV-positive patients who undergo unnecessary surgery, while making it easier to detect those who have relapsed.

The Oracle Cancer Trust

We work with the Oracle Cancer Trust, a charity which provides grants to fund pioneering research projects into head and neck cancer, and supports our PhD students and post-doctoral researchers to discover smarter, kinder treatments for patients.

The trust has funded vital research by Professor Kevin Harrington and Dr Martin McLaughlin on accelerating cell death in head and neck cancer using a viral therapy.

Support our research

Read the latest updates on our head and neck cancer research

Meet our researchers

Professor Emma Hall

Emma Hall's research is centred on improving treatment for urological, and head and neck cancers. She is also interested in management of prostate and bladder cancers.

Professor Emma Hall

Professor Kevin Harrington

Professor Kevin Harrington studies the use of biologically targeted agents, in combination with treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy, to target cancer cells selectively. He is a specialist in head and neck cancer and in melanoma.

Professor Kevin Harrington