SOUTHAMPTON scientists have made a major breakthrough that could help patients with mesothelioma survive for longer.

Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer that is linked to breathing in asbestos fibres.

Currently seven per cent of people survive their disease for five years or more.

People suffering from the disease might have more time with their loved ones when prescribed an immunotherapy drug currently used to treat several other types of cancer, new research has found.

The CONFIRM (Checkpoint Blockade for Inhibition of Relapsed Mesothelioma) trial was led by researchers in Southampton’s clinical trials unit, which is funded by Cancer Research UK, alongside their colleagues in Leicester.

Funded by Stand Up To Cancer the clinical trial found that an immunotherapy called nivolumab increased survival and made the disease more stable for patients who relapsed following standard treatment.

A total of 332 patients whose tumours were still growing after receiving chemotherapy and who were not able to have surgery, took part in the randomised trial.

A total of 221 of those patients were given nivolumab and the remaining 111 given a placebo once every fortnight for up to 12 months. Twenty-one of the patients who took part in the trial were treated at University Hospital Southampton.

It’s the first study to show that a treatment has been able to improve survival in patients with mesothelioma that has come back after chemotherapy.

Until now, no treatment had been found that could significantly improve outcomes for patients.

Patients who received nivolumab also had more stable disease. The risk of their cancer progressing was reduced by 39 per cent.

Each year, around 90 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in Hampshire.

Professor Gareth Griffiths, director of the Cancer Research UK Southampton Clinical Trials Unit at the University of Southampton, said: “This is the first study ever to show improved survival and we therefore believe that nivolumab could be a game-changer for treating mesothelioma patients in the future.”

Carol Wesson, 73, from Wimborne in Dorset, was one of the people who took part in the CONFIRM trial.

Carol developed mesothelioma after years working for a company that used asbestos rope as a door seal in the manufacture of stoves.

Carol Wesson is one of the patients who has been able to receive nivolumab through the NHS eight months after she finished on the CONFIRM trial.

She said: “It’s made a huge difference to my life. I can go out and walk my dogs, I split logs for my wood burner, and I do my garden. I can’t do everything exactly as I used to but then I am 73."