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Drug raises hope for melanoma skin cancer treatment

A British man with advanced malignant melanoma appears to have been cured by a new drug, say doctors.

A pioneering new drug called pembrolizumab appears to have cured Warwick Steele, 64, who was given months to live after suffering from advanced skin cancer.

The drug, prembrolizumab, is the latest in a generation of treatments aiming to prevent cancers from shielding themselves from the immune system. It has been tested on melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer – because the prospects for patients with the advanced form of the disease are so bleak.

Malignant melanomas are the most aggressive form of skin cancer that tends to spread to other parts of the body quickly. This type of cancer is often fatal if not treated early enough.

Just under 70% of the some 411 patients who were taking part in the trial were still alive one year after receiving the first course of treatment. The result is considered remarkable and unprecedented because all had highly advanced melanoma and a very poor prognosis. One-year survival rates for untreated patients diagnosed with advanced, stage four melanoma are just 10% for men and 35% for women.

Steele, who was a television engineer from West London, was treated for six months with pembrolizumab, which was injected into his bloodstream. His consultant, Dr David Chao said, “We cannot say for certain that he has been cured, but he is doing very well. He was aware that without an effective treatment his survival prospects were not good – maybe months.”

“Permbrolizumab looks like it has potential to be a paradigm shift for cancer therapy and is firmly helping to establish immunotherapy as one of the most exciting and promising treatments in recent years. This is one of several new drugs of this type being produced. What these early trials are showing us is that they are fulfilling their promise ridiculously fast.”

“These drugs may be applicable to many different cancer types, including ones that are hard to treat, such as lung cancer. Cancers adapt to treatments, and when they come back they are harder to treat. Can we dream about actually curing some of our patients with the very advanced cancer? Once we get the immune system attacking the cancer, can it act independently to keep the cancer under control?” We don’t have all the answers yet, but that’s what we are looking at”.

Pembrolizumab is a man-made antibody which blocks the biological pathway which cancers create to suppress the immune system from attacking the mutated cancer cells.

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