The first new mesothelioma treatment to be approved in nearly 15 years is to be made available for hundreds of patients with aggressive respiratory cancer.
The life extending treatment, which has been approved for use by NICE after the NHS struck a new commercial deal for the medicines, will combine nivolumab and ipilimumab and will be offered on the NHS immediately, benefitting around 1,000 patients in England each year.
Malignant pleural mesothelioma is a cancer of the cells surrounding the lungs that affects the respiratory system. Most cases are linked to occupational exposure to the material asbestos, with first symptoms normally appearing several decades after exposure.
The UK has the highest prevalence of mesothelioma cases in the World, with around 2,700 people diagnosed with the cancer each year – the majority of these were exposed to asbestos prior to the banning of the material in 1999.
The combination is the first immunotherapy treatment for untreated mesothelioma, providing a more effective alternative to chemotherapy – with clinical trials showing 8% more people surviving with mesothelioma after three years, and 13% more showing their cancer had stopped progressing in the same time period.
The drugs will be delivered intravenously to patients in 30-minute sessions every three weeks (nivolumab) and every six weeks (ipillmumab) for up to two years.
Professor Peter Johnson, National Clinical Director for Cancer for the NHS in England said: “The NHS is delighted that this new drug combination will now be available for patients with this aggressive type of cancer, giving them more precious time with their families and friends.
“We know that unfortunately many people are likely to develop mesothelioma as the result of previous exposure to asbestos, but up to now we have had limited options for their treatment. This makes these new immunotherapy drugs even more vital and reinforces our commitment to using the latest treatments to improve the life chances of our patients."
Scott Cooke, General Manager UK and Ireland, Bristol Myers Squibb, said: “While Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma isn’t as well-known as some other cancers, there remains a huge unmet need for patients. This new treatment option is an important step forward.”
In its published recommendations, NICE also noted that although mesothelioma was once a disease of men in industry, it is also now being seen in women and younger people.
Symptoms include breathlessness, chest pain, fatigue, lethargy, weight loss and cough. Mesothelioma is treatable but incurable and malignant pleural mesothelioma progresses quickly and has a poor prognosis, with just 8-10% of patients surviving for three years.
Grandfather of four and father of six Colin Beamish, 81, was diagnosed with Mesothelioma in January after developing breathing difficulties last year. He joined the Royal Navy as a teenager in the 1950s, working with radar and communications systems on submarines and warships. He says the cables he worked with ran across deck heads which were covered in asbestos, but he hadn’t heard of mesothelioma until his diagnosis.
He hopes the new drug combination will be able to help people like him in future and said: “Back then you were given a job and you just had to get on with it, though you weren’t really aware of asbestos and it didn’t concern me at the time. I would probably refuse chemotherapy anyway because I have other health problems, so I think it’s a good thing that this new treatment is available because it’s just about trying to give you and your family as much time as possible.”