TWO dozen skin cancer sufferers in Ireland are on a groundbreaking trial of drugs which shows a near five-fold increase in survival rates.
Researchers pioneering methods of harnessing the body's own immune system to fight cancer have uncovered further dramatic results in a worldwide clinical trial involving 7,000 people.
The study found cancer survival rates of 94pc and 88pc after one and two years using a combination of treatments of two drugs – up from existing rates of 40pc and 20pc respectively.
Twenty-four Irish people being treated at hospitals in two sites in Dublin, and in Galway and Cork, are among those taking part in the latest phase of the trial starting late last year.
Derek Power, consultant medical oncologist at Cork University Hospital and chairman of the Irish Melanoma Forum, said the results of the early stages of the trials show that a skin cancer cure could be within reach. "This really is an amazing breakthrough, albeit it's early data," he said.
"Unequivocally, it absolutely marks a sea change. There is the tantalising possibility of a cure with immuno-therapy. It's not for everyone, that's an important thing to say, but it does bring about the potential, and that's an amazing thing to say."
In Ireland, almost 630 people a year are diagnosed with melanoma and it leads to 110 deaths a year.
Malignant melanoma – when the skin cancer spreads to other parts of the body – is one of the most aggressive forms of the disease, with 75pc of people dying within one year of diagnosis.
The incidence for women in Ireland is one of the highest in Europe – fourth out of 26 countries – while the rate for men is well above average. Scandinavia has the worst rate and south-east Europe the lowest.
The study's findings were released at the 50th annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (Asco) in Chicago.
Global biopharma firm Bristol-Myers Squibb Company is producing the two drugs being used in the trial, nivolumab, and ipilimumab, branded as Yervob on the market, and is funding the study with pharmaceutical firms MSD and Roche.
It is hoped that the combination drug treatment could be available to skin cancer patients in Ireland as soon as next year.
The cost per patient could start at €80,000 (£65,000).
Michael Giordano, senior vice-president, head of development, oncology and immunology at the company, said: "The science of immuno-oncology – harnessing the patient's immune system to treat cancer – is rapidly evolving. These results are the most advanced data set to date evaluating the potential of combining immunotherapies.
"As leaders in the field, they reinforce our aspiration that combining immunotherapies may be foundational and may have the potential to change the standard of care by transforming survival expectations."