52% of patients can survive stage four melanoma for at least five years - after the skin cancer has spread - compared to about 5% ten years ago. (most of whom died within just a few months).

This is due to new immunotherapy drugs, which use the body's own immune system to treat itself.

Doctors at the Royal Marsden Hospital have proclaimed this extraordinary and rapid transformation in care.

The trial involved two immunotherapy drugs, designed to enhance the immune system to attack the cancer. Of the 945 patients in the trial, one third were given nivolumab, one third were given another drug, ipilimumab; and the other third were given both. After five years, 26% were still alive on ipilimumab alone, 44% were still alive on nivolumab alone, and 52% were still alive when given both.

Professor James Larkin, a Consultant at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: "It's been an amazing surprise to see so much progress in such a short a period of time. 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."

Immunotherapy works by allowing the body's own immune system to seek out cancers when it patrols the body, fighting off hostile invaders such as viruses. Although the immune system should attack cancers, it usually does not recognise cancers as the corrupted cells that they are; immunotherapy stops the cancer cells from hiding.

These drugs are already available on the NHS. The decision to approve the drugs for melanoma was one of the fastest ever in NHS history. They are now also being used in lung and kidney cancers.

Professor Charles Swanton, Chief Clinician at Cancer Research UK, called the progress in treating melanoma "incredibly fast". He said, "I'm inspired seeing the advancements being made in the development of immunotherapies, and their potential to transform the outlook for some patients, giving them time with friends and family they never thought they would have. And now work continues to make sure more people with different types of cancer can also benefit from these innovative treatments."

Comment

Once again, the UK is leading the world with another exciting innovation in pharma research, and it is very pleasing to see this feed through to the NHS so quickly, helping to save so many more lives. Immunotherapy is an exciting new tool that helps the body to repair itself, and is where many see the future of cancer treatment.