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Surviving Skin Cancer is Possible, British Doctors Say

Surviving Skin Cancer is Possible, British Doctors Say

Tuesday, 1 October, 2019 - 05:00
A cancer cell (white) being attacked by two cytotoxic T cells (red), part of a natural immune response triggered by immunotherapy. REUTERS/NIH
London - Asharq Al-Awsat

British doctors have said more than half of patients can now survive a deadly skin cancer that was considered untreatable just a decade ago.

According to the BBC, ten years ago only one-in-20 patients would live for five years after being diagnosed with late-stage melanoma. Most would die in months.

But drugs to harness the body's immune system mean 52 percent now live for at least five years, a clinical trial shows. Doctors said it was an extraordinary and rapid transformation in care.

Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK and kills nearly 2,300 people each year. If it is caught in the early stages then the chance of survival are good, but as the cancer becomes more aggressive and spreads throughout the body (known as metastatic cancer) then survival plummets.

James Larkin, a consultant at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: "In the past, metastatic melanoma was regarded as untreatable. Oncologists considered melanoma different to other cancers; it couldn't be treated once it had spread."

People tended to live between six and nine months after diagnosis.

The trial investigated two immunotherapy drugs which are designed to enhance the immune system and let it attack cancer. There were 945 patients in the trial, a third was given nivolumab, a third was given ipilimumab and a third was given both.

Doctors then looked at the five-year survival rate: the proportion of patients still alive after five years.

The results showed:

26 percent were still alive on ipilimumab alone

44 percent were still alive on nivolumab alone

52 percent were still alive when given both.

In an interview with the BBC, Prof. Larkin said: "It's been an amazing surprise to see so much progress in such a short a period of time. It's been the most extraordinary transformation from a disease that was regarded, among all the cancers as the most difficult to treat, the most serious prognosis."

"The possibility that 50 percent of people with stage-four melanoma are alive five years after having immunotherapy treatment," he added.

The findings have been presented at a meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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