New skin cancer drug fast-tracked to patients

The new drug – pembrolizumab, a treatment targeting advanced skin cancer – is the first medicine to be approved through the Early Access to Medicines scheme (EAMS). Launched in England last April, its aim is to get pioneering drugs to seriouslly ill patients more quickly.

Drugs signed off through this scheme have been scrutinised by a panel of regulators for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), who weigh the risks and benefits. Normal licensing procedures for drugs such as this can take years, but if satisfied by the regulators findings the MHRA can give an immediate green light to the drug in question, making it possible for doctors anywhere in the UK to prescribe it before full licensing procedures are complete.

In the report, MHRA chief executive Dr Ian Hudson commented: "We are delighted to issue the first positive Early Access to Medicines Scheme scientific opinion. The scientific opinion describes the risks and benefits of the medicine and the context for its use, supporting the prescriber and patient to make a decision on whether to use the medicine before its licence is approved."

Pembrolizumab is one of a new generation of cancer drugs, using the body’s own immune system to fight the disease whilst blocking the biological pathway that cancer cells use to disguise themselves and avoid attack. This does not mean that advanced melanoma – which may have spread to other parts of the body – is curable, but targeted such as the new drug provides can ease symptoms and possibly extend life.

Per Hall, Clinical Director of SkinHealth UK and a pioneer in the early detection of skin cancer, said: “This is very welcome news, coming at a time when reports on cancer treatment have tended to be dominated by stories of dwindling resources or new drugs not being made available on the NHS. But while it is clearly important to have such tools available to tackle advanced cancers, we must never lose sight of the fact that early detection is the most critical factor affecting survival. We need to ensure that every effort is put into providing ordinary people with information about their own cancer risk, educating them in ways to minimise it, and to recognise when they may be in danger. For most of us, skin cancer risk is easy to reduce, through minimal exposure to direct sunlight and use of high-factor sun block. Skin cancer is also the most visible of cancers from an early stage, and therefore one of the most easily identifiable – but only if people are properly checked or know themselves what to look out for.”

While there are over 100 forms of cancer affecting humans, just six of them account for around 85% of cancer deaths: lung, bowel, breast, prostate, cervical and skin cancer. Skin cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the UK, killing more than 2,000 people in Britain every year. There is currently no NHS screening programme for skin cancer.