The pill that could help keep advanced skin cancer at bay

Lawrence McGinty

Former Science and Medical Editor

Vemurafenib could help around fifty percent of those suffering from advanced skin cancer Credit: ITN

It looks like a new drug called Vemurafenib is a significant advance for people with advanced skin cancer - melanoma - that has spread to other parts of their body.

Trials have shown it extends their life expectancy by an average of four months and - just as important - doctors say it shrinks the cancers in most patients and relieves the pain they can cause. So it gives extra months of good quality life.

Charles Sain-Ley-Berry-Gray, is a young patient who is taking the drug:

It does however have downsides.

It's not a cure - it only keeps the cancer at bay. It only works for patients who have a specific genetic mutation that makes the cancer very aggressive - that's about half - it doesn't work at all for the others.

And it's expensive - about £35,000 for a course of treatment.

It has been approved in Europe, but that price puts it in a category that NICE (the government's watchdog) has often turned down as too expensive for the NHS. Indeed NICE has just recommended against another new treatment for melanoma that works in a different way because it's too expensive.

Two bright spots though - doctors are already trying out both these new drugs in combination to see if they're even better together.

And both of these drugs are available through the Cancer Drug Fund that Andrew Lansley set up two years ago.

That's £200 million a year - though whether that's enough to cover all the new drugs like this that extend life but don't cure cancer remains to be seen.