Cornering Skin Cancer

They're not a cure, but new drugs promise to extend life

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Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

So are the sprouts to blame? Suspicions first fell on cucumbers from Spain, then on sprouts from an organic farm in Germany- but DNA tests have not confirmed a culprit.

The findings are being called "unprecedented" and "truly striking." In two studies, two drugs to treat patients with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have helped prolong survival--a first in melanoma treatment.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., but until now patients with metastatic melanoma, or cancer that had spread to other parts of the body, were practically untreatable. Fewer than 10% respond to traditional chemotherapy, and no studies have shown that the treatment can actually extend lives.

Scientists at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting report promising results with two new kinds of drugs: one that helps the immune system fight cancer and another that targets a gene mutation in melanoma. The first, ipilimumab, which is already approved by the government for skin cancer and marketed as Yervoy, was tested in newly diagnosed patients with advanced disease. The study showed that 21% of patients receiving a combination of Yervoy and chemotherapy were still alive three years later, compared with 12% of those who received only chemo. On average, tumors in the Yervoy group continued to shrink or stop growing for 19 months following the study, compared with only eight months in the chemo group.

In the other study, scientists tested an experimental drug called vemurafenib, which targets a specific gene mutation that triggers growth in about half of all advanced melanomas. When patients with late-stage melanoma were given a combination of chemotherapy and vemurafenib, they were 63% less likely to die within three months than those getting chemo alone. On vemurafenib, 48% of patients also saw tumors shrink for at least a month, compared with 5.5% of the chemo patients.

Matching specific mutations in tumors to the appropriate drugs in this way represents the next phase in cancer care. That's why vemurafenib's makers hope to submit a kit for genotyping tumors along with the drug for approval by the government.

Individually, the new drugs are not cures. Taken together, however, they may offer more success. To that end, the drugs' manufacturers are teaming up for a new trial testing their products in combination.