2 Nov 2012

Good news in the fight against skin cancer

More and more often now when I cover a cancer story it is good news.  There  has been a development or a breakthrough or even a cure. This has not always been the case.  When I started health reporting more than 20 years ago often as not it was interviewing grieving relatives trying to raise money for research or the lack of funds to treat patients.  There have been some very distressing moments indeed.

But today is a day for excitement, even celebration.  The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has approved two drugs for malignant melanoma, a usually fatal form of skin cancer. 

The two drugs, Vemurafebib – trade name Zelboraf and Ipilimumab (Yervoy) have increased patient survival and improved their quality of life.  Quite simply, they offer hope where there was none before.

Today I interviewed Professor Martin Gore, medical director of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, who is a specialist in melanomas. 

He said that throughout his career there have been some very dark days.  “This is a real game changer,” he said.  “This is the first major advance for 30, 40 even 50 years,” he said.

 The two drugs approved today work very differently.  Vemurafebib blocks the effects of a cancer-causing mutated gene BRAF.   Fifty per cent of patients  metastatic melanoma have this mutated gene. 

The trials for this drug began after the Institute fo Cancer Research was able to show how this mutated BRAF gene drives this cancer’s development.  And so successful were the randomised trials that they stopped them after six months and put all eligible patients on to the treatment.

It has increased survival by more than a year and it is still early days, although doctors are at odds to say this is not a cure.  But in an area where there was once little hope, this is a breakthrough.

For those without the mutant there is Ipilimumab which harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

Patients are given four doses over three weeks. 

And according to the literature 46 per cent of patients survive for more than a year.

 But we met patient Sandra Sayce, aged 49, from Ruislip.  She was first diagnosed with malignant melanoma in October 2001. 

By 2005 more lesions appeared on her legs and eventually they spread to her lungs, liver, lymph nodes and spleen.  Mrs Sayce was given six cycles of standard chemotherapy and it slowed down the progression of the lesions and then a couple of months later she was put on a trial.

But in September 2006 she was told that it was not working and that she probably had four months to live.  They did give her a choice though:  palliative care or to try one more trial.  It was for Ipilimumab.

She told me that almost immediately she knew it was working.  And six years later the lesions have flattened, no more have appeared and the ones in her live cannot even be seen on a CT scan. 

“I know that I was in the right place at the right time,” she said.  “I pinch myself because I know how lucky I am.  Not lucky to have the cancer but lucky for there to have been this trial and to be eligible.”

Something was desperately needed.  ABout 2,000 people a year die in the UK from malignant melanoma, with young people disproportionately affected by the disease. 

Over the last 25 years, rates of the disease have risen in Britain faster than any other common cancer and it is now thought that within the next 15 years there will be around 15,500 cases a year.

All of it down to sunbathing and burning, hence the campaigns to cover up and use sun screen. 

There is a footnote, though. Nice initially turned down these drugs because of the cost. But following the publication of their first draft guidance last year which did not recommend ipilimumab, Bristol-Myers Squibb provided extra data and analysis regarding its cost-effectiveness and they also submitted a patient access scheme. And the manufacturer of Vemurafenib, the drug company, Roche, also provided extra information on its effectiveness.

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6 reader comments

  1. Gill Nuttall Factor 50 says:

    Very good article. Martin Gore is one of the cleverest men I have ever met. Only one point that maybe needs clarification, not “all” melanoma cases are down to sunbathing, burning and use of sunbeds. Some of the patients that I know of have been very young and their parents had never let them burn.

  2. lesley Kirkpatrick says:

    I received Ipilimumab in Sept 2010 when my eye melanoma had spread to my liver. Normally people can expect a progressive disease towards death in 6-12 months. I kept on getting more disease in my liver then it stoped I have had no new disease since Feb 2011 and scans have shown no evidence of disease since December 2012.
    Being in the right place at the right time is crucial . I did made the decision to go with new novel therapies and I was lucky- my melanoma was not skin cancer and not caused by sun exposure it was the rarer eye melanoma. It is not clear to me whether other eye melanoma patients will have access to the drug under the new patient access scheme. I hope so.

    1. Sarah walton says:

      Dear lesley. I hav just read your comments on the channel 4 news report last night re melanoma. Firstly congratulations on no evidence of disease. My sister is 29 married with a 3 yr old son and 20 month old daughter. In july she was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma braf positive. Never sunbathed etc. She is on a new glaxo smithkline trial and first ct scan showin slight reduction in tumours. First time we hav hope. I wondered if u or anyone can offer advice or more good news stories for us?

  3. Jackie says:

    It’s not ALL down to sunbathing and burning. Melanoma can occur in places that never see the light of day and can occur in people who have never burned, never sunbathed and never used sun beds. Melanoma is pretty indiscriminate. Other than that, not a bad article.

  4. Seamus Bennett says:

    I’m 48, at high risk for skin cancer (mum had it, have lots of moles, lots of sun as a kid, blue eyes etc).
    Great news about these drugs – but I would also like to know how to go about checking to see if I have the mutated BRAF gene mentioned in your report. Any advice? Thanks

  5. S carmichael brown says:

    This is brilliant news for skin cancer sufferers

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