Nivolumab, referred to as "practice-changing" at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's 2015 Annual meeting, has been approved by the UK's Early Access to Medicines Scheme. The drug has been shown to significantly extend the life of patients living with advanced stages of lung cancer. And has also been confirmed by researchers as a breakthrough in the treatment of one of the UK's largest cancer killers.

Although not yet licensed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), a positive opinion on the drug has been granted in regards to treating advanced or metastatic squamous non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), indicating its effectiveness and imminent licensing across Europe.

Nivolumab is classed as an immunotherapy, which means that it functions by harnessing the body's immune system to fight malignant tumours.

In it's natural state, the immune system is in place to fight off many diseases and infections on a regular basis and as a safety feature, it has a series of 'brakes' or 'checkpoints' in place to avoid attack on the body's own tissues when fighting these infections. Unfortunately, cancer, being an abnormal growth of tissue, avoids attack from the immune system due to this safety feature and remains undetected by the body's defence mechanism. Nivolumab essentially inhibits these checkpoints and allows the immune system to attack cancer cells with minimal side effects to the patient.

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), there were approximately 27,300 people in England living with non-small cell lung cancer. Of these, 2,600 (9.6%) had advanced stage 3 disease and a further 12,800 (47%) had stage 4 disease. These patients had a collective median predicted survival of 6 months for all stages.

Standard treatment for these patients has been platinum-based chemotherapy which has some effect in some patients, but immunotherapies have essentially taken the fight to another level almost doubling life expectancy in many patients.

Nivolumab is the second immunotherapy to be approved in the UK. The first being Ipilimumab for the treatment of melanoma, for which Nivolumab has also had extremely positive results. Although not a cure for lung cancer, this drug is a considerable development in the fight against the disease, giving hope to thousands of patients in the struggle against this deadly condition.