Skin cancer sufferers could be cured of the disease with new breakthrough drugs, experts claimed, as they hailed the “beginning of a new era”.
Seriously-ill melanoma patients are said to have had “spectacular effects” after receiving the medication, which could eventually be used to combat other forms of cancer.
More than three people a day are diagnosed in Scotland with malignant melanoma and Scottish rates of skin cancer are the highest in the UK.
Although survival rates have dramatically improved for Scottish patients over the past 30 years, the prognosis for advanced melanoma has been very poor and many patients die within months of diagnosis.
Success with a combination of two drugs, according to research presented to the European Cancer Congress in Amsterdam at the weekend, is the first significant progress towards a remedy for advanced melanoma.
The treatment could still be five to ten years away, however.
Scottish patients’ groups warned prevention must be the prime focus, particularly considering the likely cost to the NHS per patient for the new drugs.
The new “cure” consists of two types of drug – ipilimumab, known as ipi, and anti-PD1s, which break down the defences of cancer cells and are still in clinical trials.
Doctors can effectively reboot a patient’s immune system by combining the two. One in six patients are already being saved by the ground-breaking treatment, said the researchers.
Professor Peter Johnson, chief clinician at Cancer Research UK, said: “We’re just at the beginning of a new era of cancer treatments using the immune system. These drugs that can turn the body’s own defences against a tumour are starting to show real promise for melanoma and other types of cancer.”
About 1,200 Scots a year are diagnosed with malignant melanoma, with eight out of ten men and nine out of ten women surviving if caught early. Thirty years ago the success rate was just 58 per cent for men and 78 per cent for women.
Leigh Smith, chairwoman of Melanoma Action and Support Scotland, welcomed the research progress, but warned that Scotland’s emphasis still needed to be directed towards prevention.
She said: “Much as it is brilliant to get new drugs to potentially cure melanoma in the future, the most important thing is prevention. You can bet this new treatment would be expensive; ipi costs £50,000-£60,000 to treat one person with one course.
“Preventing sunburn will take care of 80 per cent of cases.
“You need only be burnt once every two years to triple your risk of skin cancer. And I’m sure after this summer, a lot of people have put their risk up.”
Professor Alexander Eggermont, of the Institut Gustave Roussy in France, told the congress on Saturday that new immunotherapy drugs could be used to treat other types of tumours, citing trials with kidney and lung cancer patients.
He said: “Advanced melanoma could become a curable disease for perhaps more than 50 per cent of patients within five to ten years. If I’d made this bizarre prediction five years ago, people would have said I was mad.”
Advanced melanoma is diagnosed when the disease can no longer be surgically removed. Advice on the Cancer Research UK website warns this form of skin cancer “can’t be cured” but may be controlled “for a while”.