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The Cutting Edge

New Drug Dramatically Extends Survival from Lethal Skin Cancer

Melanoma cells under magnificationResearchers from UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, together with scientists from 12 other sites in the U.S. and Australia, report that a newly approved drug for metastatic melanoma, Vemurafenib, nearly doubles the median survival time for patients with a common genetic mutation - a finding that will change the way this deadly form of skin cancer is treated.

Patients with this advanced form of melanoma, in which the cancer has spread to other organs, typically survive about nine months. Those taking Vemurafenib, which blocks a mutated BRAF protein, survived an average of 15.9 months, according to Antoni Ribas, M.D., Ph.D., professor of hematology-oncology.

"This study shows that Vemurafenib changes the natural history of this disease," Dr. Ribas says. "This data is beyond what I would have expected. We're seeing a significant number of patients with durable responses to the drug, and that the whole group of treated patients is living longer. These results tell us that this drug is having a very big impact, and this finding changes the way we treat metastatic melanoma."

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The drug represents a breakthrough in treating metastatic melanoma. Prior to this, 10 percent or less of patients with this advanced form of the disease responded to any of the available conventional treatments. "We knew this drug would make the melanomas shrink in a large proportion of patients and that it worked better than chemotherapy," Dr. Ribas says. "This study confirmed that patients taking Vemurafenib are living longer."

The main limitation with Vemurafenib is that tumors eventually become resistant to the drug. But Jonsson Cancer Center researchers are studying this resistance and have uncovered several mechanisms by which the cancer gets around Vemurafenib. They currently are seeking agents to target those mechanisms, Dr. Ribas says.


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