There is a drug that works twice as well as chemo Source: File Picture

A REVOLUTIONARY lung cancer drug – shown to be twice as effective as chemotherapy – is to be made available for NHS patients as soon as they are diagnosed.

Drugs rationing chiefs last night approved pembrolizumab as the first treatment given to patients told they have incurable lung cancer.

The medicine, which trials have shown also has far fewer side effects than chemotherapy, is expected to benefit 1,500 patients a year in England.

Late Sunday Times critic AA Gill, who died at 62 from the disease in December, wrote in his final column that he may have lived longer if he had been given a similar ‘immunotherapy’ drug called nivolumab.

A study published six months ago showed 60 per cent of patients who take pembrolizumab as a ‘first-line’ treatment survive for at least two years –and many for far longer.

It appears to stop the tumours growing for at least 10 months on average – twice as long as chemotherapy.

Pembrolizumab is one of the first of a new wave of ‘immunotherapy’ treatments, which harnesses the body’s own immune system and teaches it to attack tumours. These treatments have revolutionised cancer medicine over the last three years, with experts describing the results as ‘jaw-dropping’.

But until now most treatments have been reserved for patients at the end of their life, after all others have failed. The new decision, by drugs rationing watchdog Nice, means pembrolizumab can now be used for NHS patients with incurable non-small-cell lung cancer as a first-line treatment, meaning they do not have to undergo gruelling chemotherapy first.

Patients with early lung cancer, whose tumours have yet to spread, will be advised to have surgery or radiotherapy first. But 80 per cent of lung cancer patients are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread.

For a quarter of them – those testing positive for a biomarker showing they are likely to respond to pembrolizumab – the drug could be a top option.

Professor Gary Middleton, an oncologist at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘This is fantastic news. For the quarter of patients who are suitable for first-line pembrolizumab, it significantly improves survival without significantly impacting the quality of life of patients.’

Dr Riyaz Shah, a cancer consultant at Kent Oncology Centre, Maidstone, explained: ‘Patients love it – they feel very empowered, they feel they are being healed by their own body.’ Immunotherapy treatments are hugely expensive – pembrolizumab costs £91,200 per year per patient. But under the approval terms, US drug firm Merck, Sharp and Dohme agreed to give the NHS a secret discount. Crucially, patients only need to take the drug for two years.

Nice is due to announce a decision this summer about another immunotherapy lung cancer drug nivolumab, which so far has not been approved for NHS use. Late Sunday Times journalist, lung cancer patient AA Gill had written that he might have lived longer treated with nivolumab, which he called the weapon of choice for ‘every oncologist in the first world’.

© Daily Mail