Breakthrough drug sets body on cancer warpath means new future for patients

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 8999By: Lucy Johnson


A DRUG which unleashes the body’s immune system against tumours has been hailed as a “new dawn in cancer treatment”

Experts are amazed at the success of the trials, which one oncologist said were “almost too good to be true”.

The results are so promising that a recent trial of the therapy in patients with advanced skin cancer was ended early so that all those taking part could benefit from it.

Patients given months to live have survived for years after having the treatment. Details of the drug, known as Nivolumab, were unveiled at a cancer conference in Madrid last week.

James Larkin, leading cancer specialist at the Royal Marsden Hospital, London, who has helped with the ­trials, said: “This is almost too good to be true for an oncologist.

“I believe this could spell the beginning of a new dawn in cancer ­treatment in which patients can have long-term control of their cancer.”

Prof Richard Marais, director of Cancer Research UK, Manchester, said: “This drug is part of a new wave of therapies which will change and ­improve the way we treat cancer.”

Leading skin cancer specialist Prof John Wagstaff, of Swansea University, was also involved in the trials.

He said: “I am convinced this drug, which melts tumours, is a huge breakthrough in the treatment of melanoma and probably a whole range of different cancers.”

Cancer cells take over the body by tricking the immune system into thinking they are healthy cells. The new drug, which has very few side- ­effects, works by blocking this process allowing the immune system to seek out and destroy malignant cells.

The drug is expected to ­receive a European licence next year, though it will need approval from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence ­before it is provided on the NHS.

Final phase three trial results of the drug on more than 100 skin cancer ­patients ­were released by the European ­Society of Medical Oncology in Madrid, Spain, last week.

It is hoped they will be ­repeated in 35 other trials being carried out across the globe, including six British sites.

They are the Royal Marsden Hospital, London; the Christie, Manchester; Churchill Hospital, Oxford; Southampton University Hospital; The Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, and Singleton Hospital in Swansea.

A total of 7,000 patients are involved in trials, which are at various stages and include ­patients with lung, kidney, head and neck cancer and non- Hodgkin lymphoma.

The manufacturers of the drug, Bristol-Myers Squibb, halted the ­trials involving 418 patients with skin ­cancer on the advice of an independent committee which recognised its obvious benefits to patients.

Advanced melanoma, a skin cancer which has spread to other organs, has previously proved very hard to treat and the average survival rate is six months. Patients on Nivolumab have lived to attend two-year follow up ­examinations.

Linda Brown, 62, from ­Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, did not expect to see her 60th birthday when she was diagnosed with advanced skin cancer in May 2012. The mother of two went to her GP about a small mole on her upper arm after noticing it in October 2010.

She said: “It was tiny, and wouldn’t even fit on my finger tip. I went to the GP, who wasn’t particularly worried.”

Despite this she saw a ­dermatologist who removed the mole the following month and carried out tests which ­revealed it was cancerous.

She was told there was a low chance the cancer would recur, but in May 2012 she found a lump in her armpit and went to her skin specialist. Mrs Brown said it was a “big shock” when she discovered the lump was cancerous and that her melanoma had spread to her lungs, lymph nodes and spleen.

She was given just months to live. “I thought that Christmas would be my last,” she recalled.

The disease continued to spread ­despite chemotherapy and an earlier form of immune therapy. Mrs Brown was eventually one of the first patients to be put forward for the Nivolumab trials at London’s Royal Marsden and began treatment in May last year.

Within nine weeks her tumours had shrunk by half. She now has minimal signs of the disease. Mrs Brown added: “The drug has given me life. I am so lucky to have been able to use it.”