Treating Deadly Skin Cancer

Melanoma survival extended with vemurafenib and Yervoy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Exciting advances have been reported showing that two new drugs can increase the survival of patients with metastatic (spread to other parts of the body) melanoma, the most dangerous and deadliest form of skin cancer.

Two new drugs - vemurafenib and Yervoy (ipilimumab) - show tremendous promise in extending the lives of patients living with advanced melanoma, researchers reported at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. When compared to conventional chemotherapy treatment, both of the drugs improved outcomes.

"Two drugs treat advanced melanoma better than chemotherapy."

Vemurafenib targets mutations (changes) in the BRAF gene, which are known to contribute to the development of skin cancer tumors. Such mutations are found in just less than 50 percent (47%) of melanoma patients, and the drug was effective in expanding the survival of about half of these patients.

Those who don't respond to vemurafenib may do well with a second drug called Yervoy that strengthens the immune system to battle the tumors.

Cancer experts are calling these results a "major breakthrough." Lead author of the vemurafenib trial, Paul Chapman, MD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York says,“This is really a huge step toward personalized care in melanoma.”

For the international trial involving vemurafenib, researchers enrolled 673 patients with the BRAF gene mutation. Half the patients were given the traditional chemotherapy medication - dacarbazine - and half were given vemurafenib.

After three months, patients receiving vemurafenib saw a 73 percent reduction in the progression of the disease, with risk of death reduced by 63 percent. Just under half of the patients (48.3%) responded to the medication, compared to 5.5 percent of patients receiving the chemotherapy drug.

The results were so impressive, that the trial was stopped so that all patients could receive vemurafenib.

In the Yervoy study, led by Dr. Jedd Wolchok, also of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, 502 patients with metastatic melanoma were given either Yervoy and dacarbazine or dacarbazine and a placebo (sugar pill).

Those receiving the combination of Yervoy and dacarbzine survived longer. The mean survival rate for those taking the combination therapy was 11.2 months, compared to 9.1 months for those taking only the chemotherapy agent.

Yervoy has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a melanoma treatment.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 68,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the United States each year, and there are 8,700 deaths from the skin cancer. Survival with the conventional chemotherapy treatment - dacarbazine - is only about 6-8 months after therapy begins.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 5, 2011
Last Updated:
June 7, 2011