Sun worshippers and construction workers in particular will be happy to hear about a new drug appearing that may well offer a cure for skin cancer. This new drug, Pembrolizumab, appears to have cured a British man with advanced skin cancer who had been given just months to live. Results from the trial were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago on May 22, 2014.
Although doctors are trying to be cautious and muffle expectations by saying they aren’t 100% certain that the treatment is the sole cause of such a drastically sudden positive outcome for 64-year-old Warwick Steele, they do acknowledge that they can find no other valid explanation.
Pembrolizumab is a synthetic antibody that blocks a biological pathway called programmed cell death 1 (PD-1), which cancers activate to suppress the immune system. It is the latest in a new generation of drugs which prevent cancers shielding themselves from the immune system, which is seen as a paradigm shift in cancer therapy that may change the game for good. Anecdotally speaking, Mr. Warwick was already making arrangements for hospice treatment because of the fast growth of his melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, when the drug was tested on him.
Normally, prospects for patients with advanced forms of melanoma are very, very bleak, according to the Daily Telegraph. Just under 70 per cent of the 411 patients who took part in the trial were still alive one year after starting the treatment. This result is being considered miraculous by scores of dubious scientists because all the subjects had highly advanced melanoma and a fatal prognosis. Compare this with current one-year survival rates for untreated patients diagnosed with advanced stage four melanoma, which is as low as 10% for men and 35% for women. After 18 months, 62% of patients are still alive and undergoing treatment.
Mr. Steele, a television engineer from Ruislip in the suburbs of London, was fading away from exhaustion when he voluntarily underwent six months of treatment with pembrolizumab, a drug that is injected directly into the bloodstream. Doctors were collectively shocked when, after just three months his tumors shrank and then disappeared without showing any sign of returning.
His consultant, Dr. David Chao, from the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust in London, said: “Pembrolizumab 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 treatment modalities in recent years. This is one of several new drugs of this type being produced. What these early trials are showing is that they are fulfilling their promise ridiculously fast.
Drugs like pembrolizumab are now being seen as applicable to any number of different cancer types, including lung and liver cancers. The problem, unfortunately, as with antibiotics is that cancers ultimately adapt to treatments, and often come back in reconstituted forms that are even harder to treat. Actually curing cancer is difficult in the long run, but the more physicians and scientists learn about the human immune system, the better chance we all have. In healthy individuals, PD-1 is part of the process that applies a “brake” to the immune system and prevents it running out of control. Without such a ‘brake,’ there is a risk of a harmful inflammatory reaction – a potential serious side effect of the new drugs, yet pembrolizumab has been “well tolerated” by the trial patients.
According to the American Cancer Society, over 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year, more than a third of them aged under 55. Testing in the U.S. should begin immediately.