Groundbreaking Skin Cancer Treatment Given Approval In Record Time

Human melanoma cell line growing in a tissue culture. Dlumen/Shutterstock

A groundbreaking combination of skin cancer drugs that encourage the patient’s own immune system to destroy tumors is going to be made available by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) in England and Wales. According to the Guardian, this is one of the fastest ever trial-to-clinical use turnovers in the entire history of the NHS, and it will certainly give hope to those suffering from aggressive skin cancer across the country.

This treatment is part of a pioneering new form of chemotherapy known as “immunotherapy”, something which has been gaining traction among both monetary donors and medical researchers in recent years.

During the testing phase, these two immunotherapy drugs – known as ipilimumab and nivolumab – allowed 69 percent of patients with melanoma, the most severe form of skin cancer, to survive two years after their diagnosis. More than half of patients saw their tumors shrinking, and a fifth of them had no signs of melanoma at all.

content-1466163673-shutterstock-88269250Melanoma on human skin. D. Kucharski K. Kucharska/Shutterstock

A decade ago, those with advanced melanoma lived for an average of around nine months, so these drugs more than double the length of these patients’ lives. Far from just treating skin cancer, these drugs are now thought to be effective at treating many different types, and many trials all across the UK are currently underway.

One particular patient on these trials was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2015. Peter Waite, 63, from Preston, England told BBC News that, after undergoing one of these trials, “there was a 30 percent reduction in the size of the tumors,” and that there has been no further tumor growth. He added that “the introduction of these drugs is going to bring a lot of hope to people and I'm totally positive and looking forward to watching my grandchildren grow up.”

These two drugs “paint” the target tumors, allowing the immune system to recognize them as threats and annihilate them. They prevent white blood cells, the “hunter killers” of the immune system, from switching “off” when it comes to recognizing cancerous cells, which are essentially malfunctioning cells within the body that are replicating uncontrollably.

Unfortunately, the drug combination is quite an aggressive form of treatment, and in some cases it makes the immune system attack healthy tissue, too, so powerful side effects are expected in some patients.

Those receiving the drugs, paid for in their entirety by the NHS, will have to be carefully monitored, but it’s likely that they will be readily recommended as a form of treatment to those with melanoma. After all, these side effects are likely to be considered a small price to pay for a significant life extension.

Treating cancer is as complex, and there's much about it that we are yet to even begin to understand. Fotosr52/Shutterstock

Cancer is complex. There are over 200 types, and each responds very differently to different types of treatments. Often, the most remarkable trials pop up in the news – algal backpacks are shown to destroy cancerous cells, or leukemia cells are induced to turn on and kill each other – but the actual treatments tend to be a decade or two down the line.

This particular treatment experienced a quick turnaround, which will prolong the lives of thousands. It’s a welcome break from the norm.

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