News that the NHS is to pay for a combination of drugs that have proved effective at treating skin cancer is a sign that the healthcare market is turning to immunotherapy to fight cancer.

This has positive implications to investors in stocks such as AstraZeneca (AZN), Horizon Discovery (HZD:AIM) and SalvaRx (SALV:AIM).

The announcement by the NHS follows a breakthrough in May in medical sciences' understanding of the genetic events that cause breast cancer.

These two events strengthen the case for immunotherapy, a process which uses the body’s immune system to recognise and attack tumours.

An estimated 4 million people in the UK will be living with cancer in 2030, versus 2.5 million in 2015 according to charity Macmillan Cancer Support.

One of the traditional approaches to killing cancer cells is to use poison. Sadly chemotherapy or radiotherapy don’t have 100% success rates and comes with side effects ranging from vomiting and hair loss to fatigue.

These treatments may soon be consigned to history. While the immune system normally stops cancer from forming, it fails to spot those cells due to mutant genes linked to lifestyle factors such as smoking or formed at birth.

Through immunotherapy doctors can customise a treatment to tackle the condition. It is designed to boost the body’s natural defences to fight the cancer. There are several companies using immunotherapy to high fight cancer.


Relevant stocks

Horizon Discovery sells products that enable healthcare customers to replace mutual cells to kill diseases such as cancer.

It is working on assisting companies to take cells out of a patient to identify the genetic change that allowed the cancer to form and then grows large numbers of those cells with the correcting cell which are subsequently put back into the body.

The immunotherapy market will be worth $80 billion by 2020, according to AIM-quoted SalvaRx. The company, which joined the stock market in March this year, was formed in 2014 to develop such treatments and has four assets in the pipeline.

Oxford University is helping to fund phase I/II clinical trials to test the effectiveness of SalvaRx’s lead cancer treatment.

Other companies working to develop treatments that manipulate the immune system to kill a tumour include drug giant AstraZeneca. The FTSE 100 stock has lung cancer-targeting drug Durvalumab in clinical trials.


Other options

Investors may also wish to look at Silence Therapeutics (SLN:AIM) and ValiRx (VRX:AIM) while E-therapeutics (ETX:AIM) has products in trials targeting brain and pancreatic cancers.

Oxford Biomedica (OXB) is working on immunotherapies for Swiss drug giant Novartis’ (NOVN:VTX) cancer research programme.

The diagnosis of cancer is also improving. In a pilot study at the Medical University of Vienna, liquid biopsy-developer Angle’s (AGL:AIM) Parsortix system was almost 100% successful at detecting ovarian cancer cells in blood samples. This beat the 24.5% average achieved using existing methods.

Parsortix is approved for sale in Europe’s research market and management is awaiting clearance to sell the system in the US.

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Issue Date: 17 Jun 2016