‘Spectacular’ drugs could cure skin cancer

Beating cancer: Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK © National Cancer Institute

Two new drugs have been hailed as the latest medical breakthrough in the ‘fight’ against melanoma skin cancer. Does the way we talk about disease affect its treatment?

In 2013, college teacher Vicky Brown was given just months to live after skin cancer (also called melanoma) spread to her breast and lungs. When she took part in a clinical trial last August, the tumour disappeared within weeks, and was successfully treated when it returned. She said she was ‘delighted’ not only for herself, but for future patients who might benefit.

The trial used a combination of two drugs which stimulate the body’s immune system, and it is the second skin cancer ‘breakthrough’ in under a week. The drugs have been hailed as a ‘spectacular’ and ‘game-changing’ discovery which could not only treat melanoma but also provide an insight into other kinds of terminal cancer.

How do they work? The immune system is designed to fight harmful cells in the body, but Dr James Larkin, who helped lead the study, explained that it has built-in ‘brakes’ which prevent it from attacking the body’s own tissue. This is one of the reasons why cancer, which is essentially a corruption of the body’s healthy cells, is so difficult to treat. The two drugs ‘take off’ the brakes, allowing the body to ‘recognise tumours it wasn’t previously recognising’ and ‘destroy them’. In a trial of 945 patients, tumours were reduced by at least a third in 58% of cases.

However, some doctors have warned against a narrative of ‘miraculous breakthroughs’. Oncologist Professor Karol Sikora said that the developments were ‘slow progress’ and prolonged survival by only ‘a matter of weeks or months’. The next priority should be to understand how to make the treatment more permanent.

Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the UK, and there are around 13,000 new melanoma cases diagnosed each year. Around a quarter of these occur in patients under 50, and are often blamed on exposure to UV rays thanks to sunbeds or a lack of sun cream.

Miracle cure?

Certain members of the medical community warn that the media treats the ‘war on cancer’ as though doctors are constantly on the brink of a miracle which will cure the disease forever. Not only is this misleading for desperate patients and families, but it ignores the medical reality — there are dozens of different types of cancer, and each tumour is unique. Plus, by focusing so much one issue, many other dangerous diseases are ignored.

Others point out that the aggressive language of a ‘fight’ against cancer has helped to raise awareness, as it implies that a solution can be found. Without this emotive narrative, charities may never have received the millions of pounds which help to fund this kind of research. The medicine may be more complex, but a good story is the only way to engage the public.

You Decide

  1. Is it right to treat cancer as a ‘fight’ which can ever be won?
  2. Does cancer receive an unfair share of the media’s attention?

Activities

  1. Design a leaflet which explains different ways of protecting your skin from harmful UV rays.
  2. Research the two new drugs and write a summary explaining how the body’s immune system works to help reduce skin cancer tumours.

Some People Say...

“Medicine is more of an art than a science.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Am I at risk of skin cancer?
No one is without risk, although it is higher among those with fair skin, freckles and light or red hair. Luckily, there are simple ways to help protect your skin, like regularly applying sunscreen and wearing a hat in direct sunlight — especially during the summer months. The sun is most dangerous between 11am and 3pm.
How dangerous is cancer?
Altogether, cancer is the most common cause of death for those over the age of 25 in the UK, because there are so many different types. But survival rates have doubled over the last 40 years, and half the people diagnosed with cancer will now live for at least another decade. Despite the rise in cases, survival rates for skin cancer are particularly high — nine out of ten patients live for at least another ten years.

Word Watch

Melanoma
There are two different types of skin cancer. Melanoma is rarer than non-melanoma cancers, but far more dangerous and spreads to other organs more easily. Around six people a day died from melanoma in 2012.
Immune system
The body has a complex defence system against harmful microbes like viruses and bacteria (known as pathogens). There are basic systems, such as mucus production, which can trap pathogens before they enter the body, as well as highly specialised white blood cells which fight infections.
Second skin cancer ‘breakthrough’
Last week, another promising melanoma trial involved using a modified herpes virus to infect and kill the cancer cells, while at the same time ‘unmasking’ the cancer to the immune system.
Oncologist
A doctor who has specialised in treating cancer patients.
UV rays
Ultraviolet radiation is found in sunlight and tanning lamps. It is one of the main causes of skin cancer.
War on cancer
With the National Cancer Act of 1971, US President Richard Nixon declared a ‘war on cancer’, investing millions of dollars from the US government in research.

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