A new melanoma-busting therapy is a genuine advance in the war on cancer

    20 April 2016

    A new skin cancer therapy eradicates advanced melanomas in more than a fifth of patients, according to trial results presented at a meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in New Orleans.

    The treatment, based around lab-made antibodies, is designed to encourage the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Experts have said this new approach — called immunotherapy — is one of the greatest breakthroughs in skin cancer treatment in decades.

    The results suggest that a combination of two immunotherapy drugs works significantly better than standard chemotherapy in a majority of cases.

    Skin cancer patients in the trial were given either the new treatment — a combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab — or just ipilimumab alone.

    Sixty per cent of patients on the combination therapy, who are expected to live for nine months on the standard treatment, were still alive two years later. In over a fifth of cases tumours were destroyed completely.

    Dr James Larkin, a consultant medical oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital, 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.’

    ‘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.’

    Dr Stephen Hodi, the drug trial’s co-leader, said: ‘These data contribute to our growing understanding of this aggressive cancer and are promising news for advanced melanoma patients.’

    Instant analysis
    The phrase ‘breakthrough’ when used with cancer should always be viewed with some degree of caution, as so many potential radical treatments in this field have made the headlines in the past but have come to nought. This study, however, does give cause for genuine optimism regarding future cancer therapies.

    The study looked at drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors, that work by using the body’s own immune system to fight against malignant cells. When a combination of two of these drugs were used in patients with advanced aggressive melanoma (a type of skin cancer), it was found that almost two-thirds of patients were still alive after two years, when life expectancy with conventional treatments is usually nine months.

    This is not only potentially exciting for the treatment of advanced skin cancer, but other similar treatments are showing similar promise across a range of cancer types, including bowel, liver and ovarian cancers.

    The war against cancer is a very long way from being near to its end, but this is a very important advance in one of the many battles being fought on a number of different pharmacological fronts. We will see the use of immunotherapy treatments such as this continue to rise in the coming years. RH
    Research score: 4/5