New cancer drug hailed as 'game changer' by experts
Published 02/06/2015 | 02:30
A pair of cancer drugs which shrink tumours have been hailed as a "game changer'' in the fight against the deadly disease.
The drugs have been particularly effective in treating skin cancer - which kills an average of two Irish people every week.
An international trial on 945 patients - including Irish sufferers - found treatment with ipilimumab and nivolumab stopped cancer advancing for nearly a year in 58pc of cases.
Cancer specialist Prof John Crown has warned of a "melanoma emergency" in Ireland, with a tripling of the incidence in the past 15 years.
But he confirmed the results of these drug trials in treating secondary malignant melanoma were "dramatic".
In Ireland, one in eight men, and one in 10 women, will develop skin cancer, and the number of deaths are increasing each year.
An estimated 700 new malignant melanomas are diagnosed in Ireland annually.
There is also hope these "immunotherapies'' will provide a breakthrough in the treatment of various other cancers.
Some experts suggest terminally ill patients with common cancers - including lung, bowel, ovarian and womb - could, in the future, also be cured by these therapies.
The drugs may radically change the standard cancer treatment by reducing the need for chemotherapy.
Drug trials found treatment with "ipilimumab and nivolumab" stopped cancer advancing for nearly a year in close to six out of 10 cases.
Ipilimumab is given intravenously every three months, and is on the NHS list of drugs, costing around £100,000 (€139,000) for a year. Nivolumab is given every two weeks until it stops working.
Prof Crown said while more than 50pc of patients had major tumour shrinkage, approximately 20pc had "complete disappearance".
He said reports showed that the immune drugs were also active in more common cancers, mainly lung cancer and some types of colon cancer.
"Most oncologists believe that a new era of immune system-based treatments has been initiated," he told the Irish Independent.
"There was also very good news with a different type of drug - the breast cancer drug palbociclib. A large international study showed that palbo substantially increased the activity of standard hormone therapy. This confirms a smaller study published last year which had many Irish patients," he said.
However, he warned the possible use of these expensive drugs in treating some of the very common cancers like lung and colon would pose "huge challenges" for health systems.
Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Centre, described the test results as "spectacular".
"I think it's huge. I think we are seeing a paradigm shift in the way oncology is being treated. I'm seeing this work in almost every cancer."
He added that the results suggested the therapy worked best on the cancers that were hardest to treat. "The potential for long-term survival, effective cure, is definitely there," he said.
Peter Johnson, from Cancer Research UK, said the therapies, which work by "re-educating" the immune system, were one of the greatest breakthroughs in cancer treatment in four decades.
"The evidence emerging from clinical trials suggests that we are at the beginning of a whole new era,'' he said.
"Some of the most common types of cancer seem to be treatable with immunotherapy.''