Skin cancer is an extremely common condition in the United States, affecting an estimated one in five Americans over the course of their lives. Typically, patients visit a local dermatologist clinic to be diagnosed, while the actual treatment of skin cancer is usually performed by dermatology and skin cancer specialists, either at the same clinic or a separate practice. Like all cancers, these cases may require surgery, chemotherapy, and other treatments, the success of which often depends on how soon the condition is detected. However, a new drug in the United Kingdom that was recently approved for use could signal a change in our treatment of skin cancer.
Skin cancer is a fairly common problem in the U.K. as well: for example, melanoma is the sixth most common cancer in the country, killing more than 2,000 people each year. Advanced cases of this severe form of skin cancer are often incurable, but targeted treatments have been found to ease symptoms and extend the life of the patient.
This is where pembrolizumab comes in: this treatment for skin cancer, designed for advanced cases of the disorder, is injected into the bloodstream to stimulate the body’s immune system and fight the disease. As a result, the drug is considered part of the “next generation” of treatment for skin cancer. However, until recently, patients were only able to obtain pembrolizumab if they were participating in a clinical trial.
An initiative called the Early Access to Medicines Scheme (EAMS) sought to change that: launched in April 2014, the program seeks to connect severely ill patients with potentially-helpful drugs much sooner. Pembrolizumab was an ideal first drug: while clinical trials are still underway, the product has already been licensed to treat advanced melanoma in the U.S.
The EAMS obviously involves some risk, as the drugs it is focusing on have not been officially approved by regulatory bodies. However, because the process of licensing medications can take years, giving patients the chance to access potentially life-saving medication can mean the difference between life and death, or more likely months with their loved ones. Moreover, to reduce potential danger, all drugs will be carefully scrutinized by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) before approval.
Another improvement in the U.K.’s treatment of skin cancer can be seen in another government scheme, called the Cancer Drugs Fund: like the EAMS, this fund pays for cancer drugs that have already been licensed but not approved by the NHS. Given the high cost of medical care and similarly long wait times to approve medications, perhaps the U.S. should consider taking a leaf out of the U.K.’s book when it comes to treating threatening illnesses like skin cancer.