A SKIN cancer “wonder drug” which doubles survival rates for the most dangerous form of the disease is now available to patients in Britain.
In the biggest breakthrough for more than 30 years, sufferers who would once have been told their skin cancer was terminal are now being given precious extra months – and even years – of life.
The drug, ipilimumab, is now available to patients via the Cancer Drugs Fund.
Dr Paul Lorigan, senior lecturer at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust, one of the leading trial centres for the drug, said: “This is a major step forward. We have been in a therapeutic wilderness for the last 30 years and we can now prescribe this drug from today.
“There is a real feeling of excitement about it. Previously, there was very little we could offer patients and now there are new treatment options and there is a lot more hope.
“For 30 years it was a terminal illness. We are at the start of a really exciting phase where we have seen tangible evidence that patients are living longer. We may move into a scenario where melanoma can be controlled for a long time.
“Although we cannot say it will be cured, it could become more of a chronic illness than an inevitable death sentence with some people still alive four or five years after we expected them to die and living normal, healthy lives.”
Trials of the drug on adults with malignant melanoma show that almost half (46 per cent) were still alive a year after diagnosis, almost twice the number who received standard chemotherapy.
The Government watchdog Nice is currently considering the drug’s benefits before ruling whether it should be prescribed on the NHS. It is hoped a decision will be made by February next year.
Until now, there has been little hope for those with advanced melanoma, the most aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer.
Each year, more than 11,700 Britons a year are diagnosed and 2,070 die from it. Over the past 30 years, rates of malignant melanoma have quadrupled.
It is now the most common cancer in women aged 15-24.There are fears this is the tip of the iceberg as it can take years to develop.
Although treatable if caught early enough, just five per cent of patients who develop metastatic disease – where the cancer has spread to other organs – are still alive five years after diagnosis.
Until now, the only real treatment option was highly toxic chemotherapy which does not work for most people. Melanoma is particularly hard to treat because it creates a barrier around itself, preventing the immune system from attacking it.
Ipilimumab, also called Yervoy, is made by Bristol-Myers Squibb, and is an immunotherapy that carries on killing cancer for longer than other treatments.
It helps the body’s own defences identify aggressive skin cancer cells and destroy them.
The drug is administered as a course of four intravenous infusions costing £18,000, with a total cost of £72,000. But as most patients only require one course of treatment, it is hoped the cost will not prove a barrier to Nice approval.
Some patients treated with the drug in the trial are still alive four or even five years later.
Ipilimumab is also showing success in treating prostate and lung cancers and may also be of use for kidney and stomach cancers.
Sarah Woolnough, Cancer Research UK’s director of policy said: “It’s exciting that ipilimumab is now licensed for use in the UK.It’s important that Nice makes a decision as quickly as possible.”
Richard Clifford, trustee of SKCIN, a charity which raises awareness of skin cancer, said: “We have long awaited new effective treatment options, which makes today’s news very welcome.”
The Cancer Drugs Fund was established by David Cameron to provide £200million a year to give access to drugs turned down by Nice.
THE doctor at the centre of the drug trial yesterday described how ipilimumab has transformed the lives of some of his patients.
Dr Paul Lorigan, a specialist at the Christie Hospital in Manchester, said: “We have made a stride forward. We haven’t had an effective treatment until this.
“People treated with it who should have died years ago are still alive with no evidence of melanoma and are even back to work.”
He hopes there may be even greater benefits as more is understood about how the drug works.
He said rates of skin cancer were high because of lifestyle factors such as too much sun exposure. “People understand the message but don’t act on it.”