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Cancer patients in the UK will test drug to reduce weight loss and fatigue caused by the disease

Drug that could reduce devastating weight loss and fatigue in cancer patients will be tested in £1m trial

  • The drug, known as bermekimab, has been hailed as ‘radical’ by experts
  • It blocks a molecule which causes inflammation and pain, its developer says 
  • Patients with lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancer will be among the first to try it

Cancer patients in the UK will test a drug that has been designed to reduce weight loss and fatigue caused by the disease.

Researchers have been given almost £1million to run a trial in the hopes the drug will ease symptoms which can make life unbearable for people with advanced cancer.

Bermekimab is a form of immunotherapy that blocks a molecule in the body which can cause inflammation and pain, and is believed to be involved in disease progression.

Described as ‘radical’ by experts, bermekimab has already been fast-tracked for clinical trials in patients with advanced bowel cancer. 

Cancer patients in the UK will test a drug that has been designed to reduce weight loss and fatigue caused by the disease as it progresses in a trial with the University of Edinburgh (stock image)

Researchers led by the University of Edinburgh will begin recruiting patients from Scotland, Cardiff and London for the study this year.

The team are working with the US-based biotechnology company XBiotech, which developed the therapy. 

Patients with advanced lung, pancreatic or ovarian cancer will be given the first chance to test bermekimab.

As cancer advances, it can hijack the immune system causing life-altering physical symptoms for patients. 

These include loss of appetite and weight loss, muscle loss and fatigue, pain and nausea which can make daily life difficult. 

Bermekimab targets a molecule of the immune system called IL-1alpha, part of the interleukin-1 (IL-1) family of cytokines.

Cytokines are a group of proteins in the body that play an important part in regulating the immune system and its responses, which include inflammation. 

Scientists are working to create IL-1alpha inhibitors to interrupt inflammation processes and treat diseases. 

Dr Barry Laird, senior lecturer in palliative medicine at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Genetics, is leading the trial. 

He said: ‘Using immunotherapy to target the cause of symptoms in cancer is a new approach. 

‘If successful, it has the potential to improve quality of life for people with advanced cancer.’ 

The trial has been developed in conjunction with the UK’s National Cancer Research Institute and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

It offers ‘new hope’ for patients with advanced cancer, said Dr Steve Wootton, a nutrition expert at the University of Southampton. 

Dr Wootton added the study will allow scientists to test theories about how cancer leads to severe malnutrition and weight loss.

Professor Sam Ahmedzai, from the National Cancer Research Institute’s Supportive Care Clinical Studies Group, described the study as a ‘radical new approach’.  

Patients will be recruited from five sites across the UK – Edinburgh Cancer Centre, the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust in London.  

XBiotech’s CEO, John Simard, added: ‘Bermekimab is able to target a crucial inflammatory process that enables tumours to grow, spread and disrupt normal organ function to cause harm.’

Researchers have been awarded the cash by the Medical Research Council.


 Immunotherapy uses our immune system to fight cancer. It works by helping the immune system recognise and attack cancer cells. 

Our immune system works to protect the body against infection, illness and disease. It can also protect us from the development of cancer.

The immune system includes the lymph glands, spleen and white blood cells. Normally, it can spot and destroy faulty cells in the body, stopping cancer developing. But a cancer might develop when:

  • The immune system recognises cancer cells but it is not strong enough to kill the cancer cells
  • The cancer cells produce signals that stop the immune system from attacking it 
  • The cancer cells hide or escape from the immune system   

Immunotherapy is not yet as widely used as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy uses medication to kill cancer cells and radiotherapy means the use of radiation, usually X-rays, to treat illness.

Immunotherapy uses the natural power of your immune system to fight illnesses, and has been approved to treat people with many types of cancer.

There are different types of immunotherapy, some of which are also called targeted therapies or biological therapies.

 Monoclonal antibodies (MABs)   

Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system’s attack on cancer cells. 

They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells. This process is called antibody dependent cell mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC).

Vaccines to treat cancer   

Normally, vaccines help to protect us from disease, and researchers are looking at whether vaccines can be used as a treatment to help the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells.  

When you have the vaccine, it stimulates the immune system into action. The immune system makes antibodies that can recognise and attack the harmless versions of the disease. 

Once the body has made these antibodies it can recognise the disease if you come into contact with it again. So you’re protected from it.


Cytokines are a group of proteins in the body that play an important part in boosting the immune system.

Interferon and interleukin are types of cytokines found in the body. Scientists have developed man made versions of these to treat some types of cancer.

 Adoptive cell transfer

Adoptive cell transfer changes the genes in a person’s white blood cells (T cells) to help them recognise and kill cancer cells. Changing the T cell in this way is called genetically engineering the T cell.

This treatment is only available as part of a clinical trial in the UK. An example of a type of adoptive cell transfer is CAR T-cell therapy.

 Source: Cancer Research UK