Skin cancer patients benefiting from the NHS will receive a new drug, cemiplimab, which will change their lives

NHS patients battling a deadly form of a common skin cancer will now be given a drug that can banish tumors for twice as long as current treatments.

Cemiplimab will be available for hundreds of patients with advanced squamous cell carcinoma who have not responded to surgery and radiation therapy.

The disease, the second most common skin cancer, is not normally life-threatening and relatively easy to treat, but in rare cases it spreads to other parts of the body and becomes fatal.

Previously, only a handful of people could access cemiplimab in a clinical trial. Now Britain’s medicines watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), has decided it will be available to all NHS patients when their illness starts to spread.

The decision follows striking trial data which revealed that half of patients taking cemiplimab have lived for at least two years. Typically, experts say those at this stage of the disease don’t survive more than a year. Previous trials have shown that the drug shrinks tumors by more than 30%.

NHS patients battling a deadly form of a common skin cancer will now be given a drug that can banish tumors for twice as long as current treatments. Cemiplimab will be available for hundreds of patients with advanced squamous cell carcinoma who have not responded to surgery and radiation therapy. (File Image)

Dr Andrew Sykes, consultant clinical oncologist at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, said: ‘Before this drug arrived, these patients were often sentenced to life imprisonment and rarely survived longer than a year. But now we see patients in our clinic who have been taking this drug for at least two years and who are still healthy. It is truly life changing.

Around 28,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma each year. The vast majority of cases are caused by damage to the skin caused by UV rays, whether from the sun or from tanning booths. The cancer appears as a small, firm, pink lump, usually on the face or neck. The patch then becomes rough and crusty, tender to the touch and may bleed.

The disease rarely spreads – unlike melanoma skin cancer, the most common form, which kills around 2,300 Britons each year. Usually, squamous cell carcinoma is detected early and successfully treated with a small procedure to remove the lesion. It can be sliced ​​or frozen, using extremely cold liquid nitrogen. Most patients also receive radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Hollywood star Diane Keaton, now 76, successfully had squamous cell carcinoma removed from her face in middle age and has since become an advocate for sun protection.

But in around 1,000 cases each year in the UK, the cancer recurs elsewhere in the body, where it is aggressive and difficult to treat. The disease is also likely to spread if not detected early enough, as is the case for around 600 patients each year.

Hollywood star Diane Keaton (above), now 76, successfully had squamous cell carcinoma removed from her face in middle age and has since become a sun safety advocate

Hollywood star Diane Keaton (above), now 76, successfully had squamous cell carcinoma removed from her face in middle age and has since become a sun safety advocate

Before the advent of cemiplimab, doctors could do little for advanced disease – chemotherapy usually prolonged life by only a few months.

Cemiplimab works by blocking proteins on the surface of a cancer cell that help it hide from the immune system. The fighting cells of the body can then quickly detect and destroy it. Treatment continues for up to two years or until the treatment stops working. A very small number may quit due to serious side effects – the drug affects the immune system, which can make patients susceptible to infections.

“For the vast majority, side effects are mild – things like fatigue, itchy rashes and pain are common,” Dr Sykes said.

One patient to have benefited from the drug is retired engineer William Rankin, of Standish in Lancashire. The grandfather of two, now 80, was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2017 after his dentist noticed a lump on the top of his head.

William had three lumps removed and underwent radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells, but the cancer spread to his lungs, liver and lymph nodes under his arms.

In November 2019, William was referred to The Christie and offered cemiplimab. He stopped treatment in November 2021, having reached the two-year limit, and today remains cancer-free.

“This drug gave me a lifeline,” says William. “I know that if I hadn’t had it, I might not be here today, and it’s heartening that others are now enjoying the same.”

Comments are closed.