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Half of patients now survive advanced skin cancer

Metastatic melanoma was considered untreatable a decade ago

More than half of patients can now survive an advanced form of skin cancer that was considered untreatable a decade ago.

Ten years ago only one in 20 patients would live for five years after being diagnosed with late-stage melanoma.

The development of drugs that harness the body’s immune system mean 52% now live for at least five years, according to a clinical trial.

Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK and kills nearly 2,300 people each year. If it is caught in the early stages then the chances of survival are good, but as the cancer becomes more aggressive and spreads throughout the body survival plummets.

“In the past, metastatic melanoma was regarded as untreatable,” Prof James Larkin, a consultant at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, told BBC News. “Oncologists considered melanoma different to other cancers, it couldn’t be treated once it had spread.”

People tended to live between six and nine months after diagnosis.

The trial investigated two immunotherapy drugs which are designed to enhance the immune system and let it attack cancer.

Of the 945 patients in the trial, a third were given nivolumab, a third were given ipilimumab and a third were given both. Doctors then looked at the proportion of patients still alive after five years.

The results showed 26% were still alive on ipilimumab alone, 44% were still alive on nivolumab alone and 52% were still alive when given both.

“It’s been the most extraordinary transformation from a disease that was regarded, among all the cancers as the most difficult to treat, the most serious prognosis,” said Larkin.

The findings have been presented at a meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.