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Study Highlights Effectiveness of Skin Cancer Drug

WebMD Health News

April 27, 2001 -- For most people, staying out of the sun is the best way to prevent skin cancer.

But for those who have already developed the disease, there is good news. A drug for the treatment of melanoma -- the deadliest form of skin cancer -- has been shown to be extremely effective when used with other treatments for this disease.

Rates of melanoma are on the rise. Approximately 47,000 new cases were diagnosed last year, double the number found 20 years ago. Last year, about 7,700 people died of this disease, making it the greatest cancer-related cause of death among people age 25 to 30.

According to expert John M. Kirkwood, MD, about 90% of cases of melanoma could be avoided simply by staying out of the midday sun or by covering up with clothing, hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen while venturing out in the middle of the day. Following these precautions is especially important for people with fair skin, light eyes, and light hair. The remaining 10% of melanoma cases, he says, probably have a genetic origin.

Until recently, the best treatments available for melanoma included surgical removal of the tumor (which is curative if caught very early), radiation, and some drug therapy. At the press conference, however, Kirkwood presented the results of a long-term research study undertaken at centers all over the U.S. that demonstrates the remarkable effectiveness of a drug called interferon alpha-2b.

According to Kirkwood, the positive outcome of this study "is a very comforting one for us as physicians and for our patients because it means that this is really a solid platform from which we can develop future therapies and new combinations [of therapies]." He is professor and vice chairman of research in the department of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine as well as director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's Melanoma Center.

For the study, 880 people with high-risk melanoma (that is, the tumor is deep in the skin and/or the cancer has started to spread) were treated at cancer centers all over the U.S. Half were given interferon alpha-2b, and the other half were given a vaccine called GMK. All were also receiving standard therapy for melanoma.

The therapies were continued for one to two years, and at the end of that time the researchers found that those given the interferon alpha-2b were 33% less likely to die or have a relapse than those given the GMK vaccine. Side effects of interferon alpha-2b were generally mild and included flulike symptoms such as fatigue, fever, chills, nausea, and malaise. The results of the study are published in the latest issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

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