New drugs hope to melanoma patients

Bethany Hiatt
Warning: A graphic health warning about melanoma. Picture: Supplied

Melanoma skin cancer patients have been offered hope with the release of a study that shows breakthrough immunotherapy drugs could prolong survival for up to 10 years.

Experts say a new generation of drugs that aim to trigger the immune system to fight cancer could provide an effective treatment for advanced melanoma.

The study, the longest follow-up of the biggest number of patients with advanced melanoma treated with the drug ipilimumab, was presented to cancer specialists at the European Cancer Congress on Saturday.

Stephen Hodi, assistant professor of medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the US, told the congress an analysis of data from 4846 patients showed that overall survival rates, previously up to five years, now extended up to 10 years.

The prognosis for advanced melanoma has been poor and many patients die within months of diagnosis.

French melanoma specialist Alexander Eggermont, former president of the European Cancer Organisation, said the results suggested some patients could effectively be cured if their immune system was "reset" to keep residual tumours in check.

Combining ipilimumab with anti-PD1s, which break down the defences of cancer cells and are still in clinical trials, could double or even triple survival rates.

"Advanced melanoma could become a curable disease for perhaps more than 50 per cent of patients within five to 10 years," he said. "If I'd made this bizarre prediction five years ago, people would have thought I was mad. But it now looks like we're going to have control of advanced melanoma for years, in a substantial proportion of patients."

Michael Millward, Cancer Council professor of clinical cancer research at the University of WA, has been testing similar immune drugs in clinical trials for the past six months.

"One of the approaches being looked at is combining ipilimumab with other immune drugs, but those combinations are still being tested in trials to see if they will provide any further benefit," Professor Millward said. "It's only a small number of patients who do very well with these drugs, but there is certainly the potential there to significantly improve survival of patients with melanoma."

Known in Australia as Yervoy, ipilimumab was placed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Schedule last month, significantly reducing its cost.

Latest statistics show more than 1100 new cases of melanoma were diagnosed in WA in 2011 and 180 people died from the disease.

with AAP