A recent trial has shown promising results for treating melanoma skin cancer, the most serious form of skin cancer which claims upwards of 2,000 lives a year in the UK alone.
Advanced melanoma is difficult to treat but an international trial involving combination drug therapy resulted in a staggering 58% of 945 patients seeing a reduction in the size of their tumour. Patients received ipilimuman intravenously every 3 months and ninolumab fortnightly until it ceased to work.
These drugs target the immune system. The immune system is an extremely effective infection fighter fitted with ‘brakes’ to prevent it attacking our own body tissues, however cancer takes advantage of these ‘brakes’. A cancerous tumour is a mutated form of healthy tissues, your immune system recognises it as your own tissue and does not attack it, therefore it is allowed to grow and spread. Both ipilimuman and ninolumab take the ‘brakes’ off the immune system, allowing it to fight the cancerous tumour.
Dr James Larkin, consultant at the Royal Marsden Hospital said “by giving these drugs together you are effectively taking two brakes off the immune system rather than one, so the immune system is able to recognise tumours it wasn’t previously recognising and react to that and destroy them.”
The trial resulted in 58% of the 945 patients seeing their tumours shrink by at least a third, with the tumour remaining stable for roughly a year.
Larkin went on to say “for immunotherapies we’ve never seen tumour shrinkage rates over 50% so that’s very significant.”
However, how long treated patients live is unkown and there are severe side effects including extreme fatigue, rashes and diarrhoea which around half of the participants experienced. Dr Alan Worsley, senior science informer at Cancer Research UK, commented that “combining these treatments also increases the likelihood of potentially quite severe side effects.” Furthermore, these drugs, developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb, cost in the region of £100,000 a year.
Despite the drawbacks of this treatment, there is no denying that initial trials are promising; Cancer Research UK described the combination of drugs as a ‘powerful punch’ to cancerous tumours.
Controlling the immune system is a rapidly developing field in cancer research and there’s hope that a combination of similar drugs could be implemented to treat lung cancer and in the future other cancers too.