Rocker Beats Oral Cancer with Immunotherapy



Rikki Rockett, drummer with the rock band Poison, was diagnosed with oral cancer a little more than a year ago. Now, the tumor is gone after a clinical trial at Moores Cancer Center at University of California (UC) San Diego Health. The treatment tested a combination of 2 immunotherapy drugs that remove the defenses that cancers use against the immune system.

“We are delighted that Rikki responded so well to immunotherapy. He had already been through a lot with chemotherapy and radiation treatment before he came to us, but his cancer recurred,” said Ezra Cohen, MD, professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine and associate director for translational science at Moores Cancer Center.

“That’s the advantage of immunotherapy over traditional therapy,” Cohen said. “There are fewer side effects, we can specifically eradicate cancer cells almost anywhere in the body, and it’s effective against tumors that are resistant to chemotherapy and radiation.”

Rockett is returning to jiu-jitsu classes, riding his motorcycle, and taking care of his kids. He hopes to go back on tour with his band again soon. He also will be a spokesman for immunotherapy, reaching out to patients who have exhausted other treatments as well as those who are newly diagnosed and potentially able to avoid chemotherapy and radiation.

“My hope going forward is that by talking to other cancer patients, I might be able to lessen their pain and suffering,” said Rockett, whose cancer was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). “I know from experience that chemotherapy and radiation are not fun. If I can help anyone else, it would help give reason to what I went through.”

The immunotherapy drugs include pembrolizumab (Keytruda), an antibody that inhibits the abnormal interaction between the molecule PD-1 on immune cells and the molecule PD-L1 on cancer cells, effectively releasing the “brake” and allowing the immune cells to recognize and attack tumors. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved it for some cancers like melanoma, but not oral cancer.

Rockett also receives epacadostat, which inhibits the indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase pathway, more commonly known as the IDO pathway. This cellular system suppresses immune cell function and allows tumors to evade the immune system. The trial is sponsored by Incyte, and Rockett will continue therapy until the trial’s completion.

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