June 6, 2011 -- Two new drugs that work in very different ways are being hailed as game changers in the treatment of patients with advanced forms of the deadly skin cancer melanoma.
New studies of the experimental drug vemurafenib and the newly approved drug Yervoy (ipilimumab) were published online in the New England Journal of Medicine and also presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago.
The studies show that the two drugs can improve survival in patients who have had few treatment options in the past.
"In advanced melanoma we really haven't had good treatments," says Petra Rietschel, MD, PhD, who directs the Melanoma/Sarcoma Program at Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care in New York City. She was not involved with the studies.
"There hasn't been anything, ever, that was proven to prolong survival, and now we have two drugs and probably more on the way," she says.
Close to 70,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with melanoma each year and about 8,700 patients die of the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.
When the cancer has not spread it can be cured surgically by removing cancerous mole-like skin lesions. Once the cancer has metastasized, however, long-term survival drops to around 15%.
Vemurafenib, which is being developed by Genentech, targets a specific tumor mutation present in around half of patients with advanced melanoma known as BRAF.
The newly reported results included 675 patients with inoperable, metastatic melanoma with the tumor mutation treated with either the experimental drug or the standard chemotherapy drug dacarbazine.
Prior to Yervoy's approval in late March, dacarbazine was the only drug specifically approved for the treatment of advanced melanoma.
After three months of treatment, the vemurafenib-treated patients had a 63% reduction in the risk of death and a 74% reduction in disease progression or death compared to the patients treated with the chemotherapy.
Close to 50% of patients on the experimental drug responded to treatment, compared to around 5% of dacarbazine-treated patients.