Research into a cure for skin cancer continues

An advanced skin cancer treatment aimed at extending the life of sufferers has been licensed for use in the UK.

Zelboraf (vemurafenib), a treatment for adults with a specific type of metastatic melanoma, has just become available.

Considered the first new treatment for advanced skin cancer since the 1970s, the drug has been found to significantly improve survival chances in trials.

The "personalised" oral treatment saw an increase in median survival time of patients in test studies to 13.2 months. Thoese on standard chemotherapy average 9.6 months.

The drug treats metastatic melanoma, where a skin cancer spreads to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, lymph nodes and liver. It is widely considered to be uncurable.

Richard Marais, professor of molecular oncology at the Institute of Cancer Research, which developed the treatment along with the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: "[The treatment] made us start to think that this disease is one that certainly can be treated and potentially even one that can be cured."

Vemurafenib is classed as a personalised treatment as it specifically targets melanoma that contains a particular faulty gene, BRAF V600, found in approximately half of all sufferers.

"The benefits of a personalised medicine are that the chances of responding to it are much higher than those when the medicine isn't personalised," said Dr James Larkin, consultant medical oncologist at the Royal Marsden.

"Instead of taking 100 people and treating them and hoping that 10 or 20 percent will respond you actually pick out the 10 or 20 percent of people in advance with a test and just treat them with it. That means you are not testing the 80 or 90 percent who will potentially suffer side effects without getting benefit."

He said that the drug, which can be accessed through the Cancer Drugs Fund, was a landmark because of the increase in the number of patients with significant tumour shrinkage and some increased life expectancy.

"It's the first time that we have seen those sorts of results with a treatment of metastaic melanoma," he added.

The drug does have side effects including skin sensitivity, rashes and joint pains, but Larkin said they were generally manageable.

An estimated 2,000 people die from metastatic melanoma in the UK every year and around 12,000 people are diagnosed with the condition. Incident rates have doubled every decade, causing experts to project a rise in cases of 52 percent between now and 2030.

The cancer disproportionately affects young people aged between 15 and 34 and is the second most common cancer in this age group.