Skin cancer cure hope for millions as major treatment breakthrough saw man’s tumours disappear ‘completely’

Doctor examining woman with melanoma

Scientists believe they have uncovered a cure for skin cancer

Skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK with around 13,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed each year. Doctors have hailed a major skin cancer breakthrough after a new two-pronged treatment saw a man’s tumours disappear “completely”.

Now experts at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, in Seattle, Washington, have successfully treated a 53-year-old metastatic melanoma patient by combining two different types of immunotherapy for the first time.

He had previously shown “little response” to treatment, and his skin cancer had begun to spread.

But within weeks of the new double immunotherapy treatment, his tumours began to shrink, and then “disappeared completely”.

Killer T-Lymhotcyte attacking a Cancer Cell
Killer T-Lymhotcyte attacking a cancer cell

In a paper published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine, lead researcher Dr Cassian Yee revealed that, incredibly, over five years later, the patient remains “disease free”.

Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

Experts are “extremely excited” about the potential of the new weapon in the war against the disease.

Read more: Breast cancer breakthrough could prevent disease from returning

We reported last month how other types of immunotherapies are also being used to halt skin cancer , albeit with less dramatic results the latest findings.

Further positive results using the technique are expected to be presented later this week at the world’s biggest cancer conference, the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), in Chicago.

Skin cancer tumour day 287

Skin cancer tumour day 287

Speaking at Hay on Wye Festival at the weekend, Dr Rebecca Kristeleit,Consultant Medical Oncologist at University College London Hospital , hailed the new era of immunotherapy.

Dr Kristeleit, who was not involved in the US research, said: “We are beginning to start thinking about using that word ‘cure’.

“As an oncologist, it’s not a word that you would ever say because we talk a lot about being ‘in remission’ but ‘cure’ is the Holy Grail.

Read more: Skin cancer DNA test developed by British scientists could save thousands of lives

“With some of the immunotherapies, some patients appear to just go on and on with no resurgence of the disease so that’s obviously what we are chasing with all the work we’re doing.

“From my perspective and from patients’ perspective it is an extremely exciting time. They’re really making a difference, these immunotherapy drugs.”

Skin cancer tumour day 384

Skin cancer tumour day 384

Immunotherapy is proving particularly effective in skin cancer patients.

More than a quarter of cases in the UK are diagnosed in people under 50, which is unusual compared to most other types of cancer.

It’s also becoming more common in the UK over time, thought to be caused by increased exposure to UV light from the sun and sun beds.

More than 2,000 Brits die every year from melanoma.

New approaches to treating melanoma are based on boosting the immune system’s ability to target and destroy tumours.

Amazing video of a cancer cell being killed

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One immunotherapy treatment is to extract some of the patient’s T cells – which are cancer-fighting white blood cells – modify them so they can target the melanoma and then transfer them back into the patient.

Another approach is to treat patients with ipilimumab, a drug that activates the patient’s existing anti-tumour T cells by blocking the function of a protein called CTLA4.

On their own, both treatments can slow the progression of skin cancer, but they are rarely able to send the disease into complete remission.

Doctors at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre decided to test the idea of combining both types of immunotherapy.

They trialled the two-pronged attack on a 53-year-old male patient with skin cancer who had previously shown “little response” to either T cell transfers or ipilimumab treatment.

Skin cancer tumour day 580

Skin cancer tumour day 580

The patient received an infusion of his own anti-tumour T cells that had been treated with an immune signalling protein, called interleukin-21, that promotes T cell survival.

Immediately afterwards, the patient received a dose of ipilimumab.

A statement released by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre said: “Within weeks, the patient’s tumours began to shrink, and they eventually disappeared completely.

“Yee and colleagues report that, over five years later, the patient remains disease free.”

The centre also released dramatic pictures of CT scans which showed the incredible disappearance of one of the patient’s tumours.

Skin cancer tumour year 5

Skin cancer tumour year 5

Dr Yee, who now works at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, said: “Combining CTLA4 blockade with the transfer of well-characterised, robust anti-tumour T cells represents an encouraging strategy to enhance the activity of the adoptively transferred T cells and induce anti-tumour responses.

“This strategy may hold broad promise for ipilimumab-resistant melanomas.”

British experts cautioned that it was too early to say if the two-pronged approach could benefit all skin cancer patients because the study involved only one patient.

But Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK ‘s chief clinician, said: “We know from our research in the last few years that treatments which can get the immune system to target cancers like melanoma are helpful for some people, but we are always looking for ways to make them more effective.

“Combining antibodies like ipilimumab with a patient’s own T-cells may one way to do this, so this is an interesting trial and we look forward to seeing more results as it goes on.”