Three New Promising Treatments for Treating Lethal Melanoma

By Valerie Ross | June 7, 2011 2:03 pm

What’s the News: Three new drugs have been shown to improve survival and slow disease progress in patients with metastatic melanoma. This advanced form of the disease is the deadliest type of skin cancer, with patients surviving for an average of only 6 to 9 months. Phase III clinical trials of the treatments—a new chemotherapy drug, an immune-system treatment combined with traditional chemotherapy, and a vaccine combined with another immune treatment—were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

New Chemotherapy Drug:

  • The chemotherapy drug, vemurafenib, blocks some of the effects of BRAF gene mutations, which are found in about 60% of melanomas.
  • In this study, the researchers compared how 675 advanced melanoma patients with mutated version of the BRAF gene fared when taking either vemurafenib or dacarbazine, a chemotherapy drug often used to treat the disease.
  • Tumors shrank significantly in 48% of patients on vemurafenib, but in only 5% of patients given dacarbazine. The new drug also improved the six-month survival rate to 84%, compared to 64%.
  • These results were so encouraging that the researchers stopped the study partway through, to switch patients who had been taking dacarbazine to the new drug.
  • Not So Fast: Vemurafenib shrinks tumors for only a short time. The tumors are able to switch on pathways that essentially let them become resistant to the drug, and tend to come back within a year. While the drug improves six-month survival rates, it’s not clear whether it improves overall survival, the average length of time patients live after their diagnosis.

Immune System Treatment Plus Chemo:

  • The immune-system treatment, ipilimumab—recently approved by the FDA under the brand name Yervoy—is a biologically engineered drug that boosts the immune system’s ability to battle cancer cells.
  • The researchers gave 502 patients with metastatic melanoma either ipilimumab and dacarbazine, the chemotherapy drug, or dacarbazine and a placebo.
  • After three years, 21% of patients receiving ipilimumab in addition to chemotherapy were still alive, compared to 12% of patients taking only dacarbazine.
  • The addition of ipilimumab to traditional chemo boosted median survival by 2 months, from 9 months to 11 months.
  • Not So Fast: An extra two months, on average, isn’t very much. The drug dramatically increased the survival of a small group of patients, but there isn’t a clear way to tell why certain patients responded so well.

Vaccine Plus Immune Treatment:

  • In a third clinical trial, researchers combined a melanoma vaccine with interleukin-2, a drug that bolsters the body’s immune response. Unlike preventative vaccines, which are meant to keep people from getting sick, this vaccine revs up the immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • The researchers gave 185 patients with advanced melanoma one of two treatments: the vaccine and interleukin-2, or interleukin-2 alone.
  • Tumors shrank by at least half in 16% of patients who got the vaccine and interleukin-2, compared to 6% of those who only got the drug.
  • The vaccine/drug combo also increased average survival by 7 months over the drug alone, from 11 months to 18 months.
  • Not So Fast: The results weren’t quite strong enough to be statistically significant, meaning more trials must be done to see if the vaccine really does help. In addition, the vaccine increased the incidence of some serious side effects, including temporary heart problems.

The Future Holds:

  • While each of these treatments has shortcomings, “the future is going to be to build upon the success” of each by testing them in combination, Dr. Allen Lichter, CEO of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, told the Associated Press.
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb, which makes ipilimumab, and Roche, which makes vemurafenib, are doing just that, teaming up to test whether the two drugs are safe and effective when administered together.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • richard cavalli

    I have been deeply involved in cancer research for over 10 years and I have accidentally discovered what I believe is the solution to cancer. It is the miraculous immune system in our bodies. All we have to do is avoid those things that weaken it and eat those things that strengthen it. I have successfully done it for my prostate cancer and for my son’s tongue and throat cancer. Please accept my gift of to help the millions of us who are desperately searching for an answer besides chemo.

    It really is there and I know it works!

  • Pat Smyth

    Research into Vitamin D shows it has a dramatic effect on the immune system; Killer T cells metabolize Vit D; low Vit D levels equate to low immune system response. Proper Vit D levels seems to reduce cancer rates by up to 50%.

    I’m amazed to see so little reference to the effects of Vit D to prevent cancer; we may have a silver bullet, yet very little coverage.

    Final note – we are have low Vit D levels in our bodies because we now work indoors, and use sunscreen when outdoors

    Timeline – Early 2005

    Full double blind scientific study of thousands of menopausal women in the northern US to see what affect Vit D and calcium have on osteoporosis in older women.

    Surprise findings: Vit D knocks cancer rates down by 50%, Vit D and calcium drop rates by 60%

    This initiated an intense study of Vit D – how can it have such and effect on our body?

    First findings – Scientific American article November 2007 “Cell Defenses and the Sunshine Vitamin” describes how Vit D is metabolized by the body. Findings – it strongly influences both the immune system, and individual cells use Vit D to fight viruses and bacteria. How, they do not know.

    In March 2010 Danish scientists find Vit D activates the killer T cells in the immune system to latch onto its targets, too little Vit D relates to poor rates of attacking invaders, including cancer cells.

    In an article at Discovery this March 2011, called Carbon-Nanotube Cancer Detector Can Catch Even a Single Marauding, Malignant Cell one doctor is quoted “Any improvement in detecting cancer’s spread is important, says MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics Brian Wardle, because “of all deaths from cancer, 90 percent are … from tumors that spread from the original site.””

    So an active immune system’s killer T cells will help destroy those cancer cells floating around the body. Is this the reason Vit D reduces cancer by 50%?

  • Sheri

    My husband currently has stage 4 melanoma, a cancer that is known to correlate with sun exposure. He spent his summers outside playing in the backyard pool as a kid, then he worked for almost 20 years as a roofer and landscaper. He wore no sunscreen. I guarantee he had plenty of Vitamin D.


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