Zelboraf May Double Survival for Some Melanoma Patients
New Drug Extends Life, Lessens Pain for Many Patients With Common Form of Advanced Melanoma
Side Effects ‘Not Trivial’
Along with those benefits, the drug does come with some significant side effects.
“The side effects are certainly reasonable for a cancer drug. They’re not trivial,” Sosman says. “A number of patients needed to have their drug held for a short time or needed to have their dose lowered, but almost all patients continued on the drug. Few stopped it.”
The most problems seen in patients taking the drug were joint pain, rash, skin that easily burns in the sun, fatigue, and hair loss. More than a quarter of patients who take the drug also develop new squamous-cell skin cancers, although those are thought to be less dangerous than the melanoma.
“These patients should be followed closely by a dermatologist, which is probably a good idea anyway,” Sosman says.
Experts who were not involved in the study said the results mark an important advance in treating melanoma, but noted that there was much more work to be done to understand why people develop resistance to the drug and eventually relapse.
“This is a very exciting drug in the sense that it provides almost all patients with BRAF-mutated melanomas a remission,” says Kim A. Margolin, MD, who leads melanoma research for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
“There’s no remote chance this is going to be a cure. There may be 1% or 2% of patients who remain in very durable remissions, but everyone is scratching their heads about why they haven’t developed resistance the way everyone else has,” says Margolin, who is also a professor at the University of Washington and a member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, both in Seattle.
Patient advocates still see a reason for hope.
“We can see a time when for most patients, melanoma will become a curable or a manageable disease,” says Tim Turnham, executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation. “We’re not there yet, and we’re not close to there yet, but we can see that we can get there.”