A new radioactive cream can obliterate tumours caused by the most common skin cancers without surgery or conventional radiotherapy in just two hours.
According to Italian scientists, the new technique has minimal side effects and the treatment does not even leave a scar.
The vast majority of those who suffer the less dangerous forms have surgery to remove the affected tissue.
Other treatments include radiotherapy and “freezing” of the tumours if they are small and superficial.
An estimated 3% of patients have deep tumours which are difficult to remove surgically because they are on sensitive areas such as the eyes, nose or ears. Others cannot have surgery due to age or medical conditions.
These patients are given radiotherapy, which involves at least ten sessions at a hospital and often results in serious side-effects.
For the new technique, the researchers harnessed rhenium-188, a radioactive isotope which was previously rare and expensive but is now being supplied in quantities large enough to treat thousands of patients a week by nuclear physicists at the British-funded Institut Laue-Langevin in France.
The treatment, which is said to be painless, involves putting a piece of surgical foil on the tumour area, painting on the radioactive paste and removing it one or two hours later.
Researchers believe that the radiation causes healthy skin to re-grow, so there is no scarring.
In the Italian trial, 85% of patients were cured after one treatment and up to 95% after three treatments.
Oliver Buck, chief executive of the German technology firm ITM which developed the therapy, said: “This means that patients with large and difficult-to-treat tumours not only have hope but keep their quality of life under what would otherwise be dire conditions.
“These people sometimes have to go through horrible surgery which removes part of their face. By contrast this treatment is generally done in a single non-invasive session.”
Trials are now being held in Germany and Australia, and Oliver Buck believes the treatment could be licensed in the UK within two years. He says it will “certainly” be cheaper than current therapies.
Oliver Buck said: “The radiation does not affect surrounding tissue and also seems to activate the body’s healing mechanisms.”
He stressed that surgery remains the “gold standard” as it removes all the cancerous tissue but said those who cannot have it for various reasons could benefit.