Experimental Melanoma Drug May Help Extend Patients’ Lives

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Malignant melanoma of the diffuse large non-cleaved cell type. Note the large cells with nucleoli and mitotic stages. H&E stain, LM X160.

The results of a promising recent clinical trial showed that an experimental drug prolonged life in patients with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. The drug, manufactured by Swiss drug giant Roche, targets a specific genetic mutation in some melanoma cells.

About half of melanoma patients have a mutation in a gene called B-RAF, which causes the uncontrolled growth of cells. The Roche drug is designed to block a malfunctioning protein created in cancer cells by the mutation, while leaving properly functioning proteins in healthy cells intact.

In the trial involving 676 patients with melanoma, participants were assigned to receive either the drug or standard chemotherapy. Early results showed that in nearly all of those with the B-RAF mutation, the new drug shrank tumors — a remarkable result given that many melanoma patients fail to respond to chemotherapy. (More on Time.com: Dermatologist Susses Cancer Risk)

The recent results, announced Wednesday by Roche, further suggest that the drug extends lives, compared with chemotherapy. The New York Times reported:

Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, has been essentially untreatable after it spreads, with a median survival rate of eight months from the time of diagnosis. Roche has not yet reported how much longer patients taking its drug live, on average.

Given the drug’s early promising results, Roche has expanded patient access to the drug, beyond the trial, at three cancer centers. However, the Times reports, oncologists are also urging further testing of drugs that can be used in combination with the Roche pill. Despite its success in trials, results also show that patients relapse after initially responding to the drug.