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Cancer patients should be given immunotherapy as the first line of treatment following the results of ‘game-changing’ trials, charities say.

Patients undergoing the new type of treatment – which harnesses the immune system so it targets and destroys only cancer cells – typically lived longer with fewer reports of the cancer returning.

A study involving people with advanced stage lung cancer found it almost doubled their survival time, while another revealed that immunotherapy treatment shrank tumours before surgery.

Further trials will test the methods on patients with bowel and ovarian cancer.

Dr Roy Herbst, a lung cancer specialist at Yale Cancer Centre, who was not involved in the studies, said it could be the start of a fundamental change in treatment. ‘I’ve never seen such a big paradigm shift as we’re seeing with immunotherapy,’ he said.

The series of studies was yesterday presented at the American Association of Cancer Research in Chicago.

In one, scientists at New York University conducted a study involving more than 600 patients with advanced lung cancer.

Two thirds were given a combination of both immunotherapy drugs and chemotherapy while the remaining patients were given chemotherapy and a placebo. The estimated survival after a year was 69 % in those taking the immunotherapy drugs compared to 49 % who only had chemotherapy.

A separate study by Johns Hopkins University and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre tested the immunotherapy drug, nivolumab, on 21 patients about to have surgery for non-small-cell lung cancer.

In 45 % of cases, it not only started to shrink the tumour but turned it into an ‘auto-vaccine’, activating T cells, which circulated the body to attack cancer cells.

After 18 months, recurrence-free survival was 73 % compared to the clinical average of around 50 %.

Dr Sung Poblete, president of Stand Up To Cancer, which funded this research, said: ‘It may be a game-changer. This notion of “cancer interception” has the potential to stop cancer in its tracks.’