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Cancer drug breakthrough hailed as ‘new era’ of treatment

A combination of cancer drugs has been found to bring about incredible improvements in the condition of people suffering with advanced melanoma.

More than half of patients in a trial saw their tumours shrink or brought under control thanks to the drugs ipilimumab and nivolumab.

The results have been hailed as spectacular and it is hoped that a “new era” for cancer treatment could now be ushered in.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy uses a new class of drugs which harness the power of the body’s immune system to attack cancerous cells.

In the international trial on 945 patients, the treatments stopped cancer advancing for nearly a year in 58% of cases, with tumours stable or shrinking for an average of 11.5 months, researchers found.

This was compared to 19% of cases for ipilimumab alone, with tumours stable or shrinking for an average of 2.5 months, according to the research.

Professor Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Centre in the US, described some of the findings as spectacular and said immunotherapy could replace chemotherapy as the standard treatment for cancer within the next five years, according to reports.

‘Paradigm shift’

He told reporters: “I think we are seeing a paradigm shift in the way oncology is being treated. 

“The potential for long-term survival, effective cure, is definitely there.” 

Professor Peter Johnson, director of medical oncology at Cancer Research UK, said: “The evidence suggests we are at the beginning of a whole new era for cancer treatments.”

Dr James Larkin, a consultant at the Royal Marsden Hospital and one of the UK's lead investigators, told the BBC: “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. 

“For immunotherapies, we've never seen tumour shrinkage rates over 50% so that's very significant to see. 

“This is a treatment modality that I think is going to have a big future for the treatment of cancer.”

The findings have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine and were presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual conference in Chicago. 

It comes alongside a number of additional advancements in the fight against cancer, including: 

  • A new treatment also presented at the Chicago conference that sees tiny radioactive balls, or “resin microspheres”, fired at tumours, dramatically hindering their growth. 
  • A trial in which the nnivolumab drug was found to double the life expectancy of patients with lung cancer by freeing the immune system to attack the cancerous cells. The findings were exhibited at the Chicago conference. 
  • Results of a study published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research suggesting that men who fail to eat healthily after being diagnosed with prostate cancer significantly increase their chances of dying from the disease.

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