British skin cancer sufferers were given fresh hope yesterday after scientists discovered a simple pill already used to treat arthritis – can stop tumours growing.
GPs have long prescribed the drug Leflunomide to treat the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis with great success.
But British scientists have now discovered that it can halt the spread of melanoma tumours when combined with another drug.
The breakthrough cannot cure skin cancer but prevents tumours from regrowing after they have been removed by surgery or reduced by chemotherapy.
The discovery, made by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA), brings hope to hundreds of thousands of skin cancer sufferers worldwide.
Dr Grant Wheeler, from UEA, who has been working on the treatment with scientists at the Children’s Hospital Boston, America, described the new drug as ”life-changing”.
He said: ”We are making use of an existing drug specifically to target melanoma. It can combat melanoma and will make chemotherapy more effective.
”This is a very exciting breakthrough. There is a very high risk of melanoma cancer returning after it is surgically removed and there have been no drug treatments.
”Because this drug is already on the market it won’t have to go through all the safety tests so it will come onto the market much quicker.
”And the patent has run out so it will be relatively cheap with several suppliers. It could be prescribed to patients in just three years time.
”We will never be able to completely eradicate cancer but we are generating more and more treatments. Soon patients will die of another disease apart from their cancer.”
In the UK around 2,000 people a year die from malignant melanoma when their cancerous tumours return after being surgically removed.
However, scientists have now discovered that when Leflunomide is used in combination with PLX4720, another cancer drug, post-op tumour growth is halted completely.
The combined drugs inhibit the growth of malignant tumours and increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy, which only 20 per cent of melanoma patients currently respond to.
Clinical trials are set to start in America within six months and the treatment could be available to patients in three years.
Janet Pearce, 53, who lives with her husband in Tasburgh, Norfolk was first diagnosed with melanoma cancer 12 years ago and given the all-clear after treatment.
However, in 2007 the mum-of-two’s cancer returned and spread from her left ankle to her groin, abdomen, diaphragm and neck.
Brave Janet believes the new treatment will give melanoma cancer suffers ”a chance of life” even though the discovery has come too late to save her.
She said: ”There are no other treatments for melanoma cancer apart from radiotherapy and chemotherapy so this new treatment could be brilliant.
”I hope it will help people so they don’t have to go through what I have been through. This is a silent killer and the rates of survival are low.
”If the trials go well this drug could save people and you could start seeing melanoma survivors. It could give people the chance of life.
”I feel like someone had taken away the time span on my life. I am realistic and I have dealt with the illness the best I can.
”People ask me how I manage to just get on with it – but you have to. I do it for my family.”
The research, printed in the journal Nature, has been granted funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.