New skin cancer drug shown to increase survival rates

A new treatment for advanced skin cancer has been hailed as a paradigm shift after it boosted one year survival rates from just one in ten to almost three in four. The results of early tests using a drug to prompt the body's own immune system to attack the cancer has found that 74 per cent of patients were still alive after one year, compared to just ten per cent currently.

Dr David Chao, Consultant Medical Oncologist at the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, said: “Pembrolizumab looks like it has potential to be a paradigm shift for cancer therapy. The survival results seen in the study which are the most meaningful measures of success to doctors and patients alike are very promising and could benefit the many patients with advanced melanoma in the UK.”

Around 13,300 cases of malignant melanoma are diagnosed in the UK each year and cases have increased fivefold since the 1970s, thought to be due to the rise in package holidays abroad and the use of sunbeds.

Advanced skin cancer, which has spread to other parts of the body, has a poor prognosis and currently only one in ten people live for a year after diagnosis. However some people have lived for two years while receiving the new treatment.

The new drug, which is an antibody that allows the body's immune system to once again 'see' the cancer as a foreign invader and so attack it, is being evaluated for use in 30 types of cancer.

Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: “It’s exciting to see the range of new treatments that are emerging for people with advanced melanoma. These new therapies harness the body’s own immune system to fight this cancer that has previously been so hard to treat effectively.

“Melanoma can only grow by finding a way to escape detection by the immune system. One way it does this is by triggering a shut-off switch on immune cells when they get close to the tumour.

"This treatment blocks the cancer cells' ability to use this switch, allowing the immune system to recognise and destroy the cancer. We are seeing a whole range of these immune treatments coming into the clinic, based upon the great progress we are making in our research into the immune system.”

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO 2014).

One of a group of special proteins in the blood that are produced in response to a specific antigen and play a key role in immunity and allergy. Full medical glossary
Abnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of all living organisms. Full medical glossary
The process of determining which condition a patient may have. Full medical glossary
The organs specialised to fight infection. Full medical glossary
Describes a tumour resulting from uncontrolled cell division that can invade other tissues and may spread to distant parts of the body. Full medical glossary
A malignant tumour arising from pigmented cells or melanocytes, most often in the skin Full medical glossary
An assessment of the likely progress of a condition. Full medical glossary
An abnormal swelling. Full medical glossary