The widow of a businessman who died of skin cancer has welcomed moves by health experts to make a pioneering drug available and helping give new hope to patients.
Since her husband’s death, last August, Helen Mackerill has been campaigning to raise awareness of skin cancer and the need for people to protect themselves in the sun.
Paul died aged 52 after four years of battling the disease.
He had been due to be part of the trials of immunotherapy, but was too ill to undergo the treatment.
But while it is too late for Paul, his wife has welcomed the news the treatment - a combination of two drugs ipilimumab and nivolumab stops the cancer from tricking the immune system into thinking they are healthy tissues - will now be available on the NHS in England.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has issued draft guidance for the use of immunotherapy and it is believed patients in England could be the first to have access to the therapy.
Until you are in that position, you don’t appreciate the extra time these drugs can give you.Helen Mackerill
About 1,300 people could be eligible for the drug combination each year, however doctors will need to be careful that patients are fit enough and willing to tolerate its often significant side effects such as diarrhoea and liver damage.
Mrs Mackerill, from Rydal Gardens, South Shields, said: “Anything which helps to prolong a person’s life who has cancer has to be welcomed.
“Paul had been due to be part of the trials for Immunotherapy but he was too ill.
“He was given another drug which did help to shrink his tumours and gave him an extra six months with us.
“This is why, having immunotherapy funded by the NHS is a huge step forward. It’ll give those with cancer the chance to spend more time with their families.
“Until you are in that position, you don’t appreciate the extra time these drugs can give you.
“We were able to put our affairs in order as Paul didn’t have a will and we were also able to spend quality time as a family and making memories.”
Melanoma kills more than 2,000 people in the UK each year.
Paul was diagnosed with melonoma in 2011. A cancerous mole was removed but by September 2012 the cancer had returned spreading to his lymph nodes.
Mrs Mackerill added: “This is a huge move forward for people with skin cancer as it’ll mean more people will be able to have access to the drug.
“When you are in the position we were in, knowing there was something out there which could prolong Paul’s life but being unable to afford it, that is the reality for lots of people.
“The drug was funded by the Northern Cancer Centre, if it hadn’t been we would have struggled to be able to afford it as it was costing £6,000 a week.
“Having immunotherapy provided by the NHS will give so many people hope.”
Professor Carole Longson, director of the Health Technology Evaluation Centre at NICE, said: “After one of the fastest drug appraisals NICE has carried out, these promising new immunotherapy treatments for advanced melanoma look set to significantly extend the life of people with the condition.
“The evidence we examined was very promising and I know further trials are ongoing which have also released encouraging data.
“The committee concluded that the availability of an effective new treatment option such as nivolumab in combination with ipilimumab would be valuable for people with advanced melanoma who are fit enough to tolerate it.”
In February NICE recommended nivolumab for advanced melanoma. NICE has also recommended ipilimumab as a possible treatment option for adults with advanced melanoma twice, once in patients that have not been treated before and again in patients that have previously been treated.
In addition, NICE recommends pembrolizumab for advanced melanoma used before and after prior treatment with ipilimumab.
The final draft guidance is now with consultees, who have the opportunity to appeal against it.
Until NICE issues final guidance, NHS bodies are asked to make decisions locally on the funding of specific treatments.
Once NICE recommends a treatment ‘as an option’, the NHS must make sure it is available within three months.