Scientists have made a major breakthrough in the battle against skin cancer after the results of two international trials against an advanced form of the disease were described as “exciting and striking.” The two treatments, designed to combat advanced melanoma, enable the human immune system to identify and target tumors. The findings were made public at Chicago’s American Society of Clinical Oncology conference.
The treatment of advanced melanoma, which is when skin cancer which has subsequently spread to other organs in the body, has long been very difficult to treat. Two experimental drugs, however, pembrolizumab and nivolumab, help block the method cancers use to hide from the body’s immune system. Until the use of these drugs, cancers would go undetected in biological pathways. Until just a few years ago, the average length of survival was around six months. In a trial of 411 patients evaluating pembrolizumab, 69 percent of patients survived at least a year. This is considered a major breakthrough in the treatment of skin cancer.
Formerly known as MK-3475, the drug is also being tested against other tumor types. A skin cancer patient in London, Warwick Steele, has been receiving regular infusions of pembrolizumab since October. Prior to the start of treatment, Steele could barely walk because the melanoma had spread to one of his lungs. Unsurprisingly, he found it difficult to breathe. Scans have revealed, however, that after just three infusions, the drug appears to have wiped the cancer from the lung.
Nivolumab, the other experimental skin cancer drug, was tested with the existing licensed immunotherapy called ipilimumab. Scientists found that in a trial of 53 patients, the survival rate after a year was a positive 85 percent. After two years, it was down only slightly at 79 percent. Although the results are positive, medical professionals are urging caution, because the results which have been published are of early stage trials. Scientists are currently conducting a significantly larger phase of trials involving many UK hospitals. Once the findings are known, around this time next year, clinicians will be be sure what the likely benefits will be.
One caveat is, like all drugs, the ones used in this case have side effects. Steele said he experienced night sweats plus two brief blackouts when on the drug. He said it was well worth it, however, and doctors are now treating these symptoms. Although it is still early, and doctors are urging caution about the breakthrough for skin cancer, there is at least one patient who is happy with the results.
The BBC aired a special news item on the findings Tuesday night in which the new treatments were heralded as one of the biggest steps in medical science in recent history. Each year in the UK, approximately 13,300 people are diagnosed with melanoma with over a third of the individuals under the age of 55.
Although doctors are urging caution about the impact of the drugs, this is nonetheless the a major breakthrough in the battle against skin cancer and in a year’s time, the news could be even better. Skin cancer sufferers around the world may finally have access to a cure.
By Robert Shepherd