A new treatment for skin damage that can lead to cancer has been created from the sap of a common garden weed.
Picato gel is a fast-acting treatment for actinic keratosis (AK), which appears as red, rough patches of skin often on the face, balding scalp, backs of hands and trunk of the body.
Most people haven’t heard of the condition triggered by long-term sun exposure, or using sunbeds, although it affects two million people aged 40 and over.
However, the characteristic sandpaper patches, if left untreated, are responsible for two-thirds of cases of squamous cell carcinoma, a non-melanoma form of skin cancer.
Existing creams prescribed by doctors take between three weeks and three months to work, so many patients give up using them.
Picato is applied once daily over two or three days and in clinical trials almost all patients completed their treatment.
Dr Girish Gupta, Consultant Dermatologist and West of Scotland Skin Cancer Lead Clinician, said “Few of us realise that the warning signs of skin cancer risk aren’t just about changes to moles – sun damage presenting as rough skin, called actinic keratosis, can be a sign too.
“Damage to skin cells from sun exposure can in the long term lead to the development of skin cancer”.
The active ingredient in the gel comes from the sap of the petty spurge plant, commonly known as milkweed, which has the botanic name Euphorbia peplus.
The plant sap has been used for centuries as a traditional medicine for sun damaged skin, but recent research shows the ancient sages were right about its benefits.
The active compound was first identified in 1997 by Dr Jim Aylward, a scientist in Australia where the plant is now grown for medicinal use.
Clinical trials show just two to three days’ treatment can reduce AK lesions by up to 83 per cent, which lasts at least a year in follow-up examinations.
GP specialist Dr Stephen Kownacki, executive chair of the Primary Care Dermatology Society, said “When treatment is needed for AKs, in the majority of cases GPs are able to institute treatment without the patient needing to wait for a hospital referral and trips to hospital for treatment.
“Picato is a fast-acting treatment that can be self-applied in two or three days by patients at home. This helps patients complete their treatment course for the best effect.”
Many patients experience skin reactions such as redness, flaking and scaling, but these resolve within two to four weeks.
The prescription-only treatment costs the NHS £65 and it has been given the go-ahead for use in England, Wales and Scotland.
Charlotte Fionda, Director of Skcin, the UK’s only national skin cancer-specific charity, said “Sadly, public awareness of the dangers of overexposure to UV light is very low and the incidence of skin cancer and potential precursors such as AK are on the rise.
“It is now more important than ever for the general public to be skin savvy and check their skin for any changes. Picato offers a new option for consideration by patients in partnership with their healthcare professional”.
Dr Gupta said the launch of the gel on the longest day of the year – June 21 – should act as a reminder that prolonged sun exposure could eventually lead to cancer.
“We all want to enjoy our summer holidays but at this time of year, as we start to expose skin that has not seen strong sun over winter, our skin is particularly vulnerable to burning” he added.
Geraldine Murphy, Managing Director of LEO Pharma, which makes the gel, said “The introduction of Picato in the UK and Ireland is a significant advance for patients suffering from AK. AK can lead to non-melanoma skin cancer and is a growing problem throughout the world.
“The introduction of Picato is another step forward towards our goal of helping people achieve healthy skin”.