Nearly a quarter of patients with advanced skin cancer saw their tumours completely wiped out after taking a breakthrough new treatment.
The dramatic results, revealed yesterday at a major cancer conference in the US, give hope of an effective treatment for the 14,500 people diagnosed with malignant melanoma in Britain each year.
Patients with advanced melanoma – a form of skin cancer – are usually expected to live just a few months, and would often be described as having ‘terminal’ cancer.
But 69 per cent of patients given a combination of two immunotherapy drugs survived for two years, according to a new trial of 142 patients.
And to scientists’ surprise, 22 per cent of participants had no detectable tumours remaining.
Both treatments harness the body’s own immune system and use it to attack the cancer.
On their own, both drugs are remarkably effective, but fewer than half of patients respond to each drug.
In combination the drugs seem to create a far more powerful ‘twin attack’ – and they work for a greater number of patients.
But the international team of researchers, who presented their data at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in New Orleans yesterday, warned that a double dose also increases the risk of side effects.
The treatments are each already available on the NHS individually.
The manufacturer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, has submitted an application for a safety licence to the European Medicines Agency, with a decision expected in June.
But campaigners face a battle to get the combination treatment approved on the NHS, because it is eye-wateringly expensive.
A year’s treatment of both drugs would total £131,400, although the NHS would expect a substantial discount on this price if they were to be combined.
Initially, roughly 700 British patients with advanced skin cancer would be expected to benefit from the combined treatment each year, if it were to be approved, but this number would rise if it were later offered at an earlier stage of the disease.
Dr Stephen Hodi, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the US, who led the trial, said: ‘These data contribute to our growing understanding of this aggressive cancer and are promising news for advanced melanoma patients.’
Dr James Larkin of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, who has treated patients with the drugs as part of another on-going trial, said: ‘Both nivolumab and ipilimumab have changed survival expectations in advanced melanoma over the last few years and these latest data show us that combining these two immunotherapies is an effective two-pronged attack against the cancer.
Sixty-nine per cent of patients given a combination of two immunotherapy drugs survived for two years, according to a new trial of 142 patients. And to scientists’ surprise, 22 per cent of participants had no detectable tumours remaining.
‘The overall survival rates observed using the regimen of nivolumab plus ipilimumab are very promising and provide further hope for patients and their families affected by this disease.’
Professor Richard Marais, Cancer Research UK’s skin cancer expert, said: ‘These exciting results show that treating advanced melanoma patients with a combination of immunotherapy drugs can help more people live longer.
‘The combination acts as a double attack that releases the brakes on the immune system and stops cancer hiding from it, helping the patient’s immune system to fight the disease.
‘These results offer new hope to melanoma patients and their families.
‘However, it’s important to remember that there’s an increased likelihood of severe side effects when these drugs are combined.
‘We need to identify which patients are most likely to benefit from this combination and also which patients are most likely to experience the side effects. That will help doctors to ensure each patient gets the best treatment they need.’