Melanoma is considered the most deadly form of skin cancer, striking more than 75,000 people each year. It is the fifth most often diagnosed type of cancer in men and the seventh in women. Chemotherapy has been used as the main treatment, but it only shrinks melanoma 10 to 15 percent and hasn’t been shown to significantly improve the overall survival of patients. However, there is good news. Two new treatments have been developed that show positive results in fighting melanoma. One type of drug helps boost the immune system and the other targets a specific gene mutation associated with melanoma.
BRAF is an oncogene. This gene, when mutated, can cause cancer. It shows up in about 50 percent of patients with metastatic melanoma, as well as those with other cancers. One new drug, Dabrafenib, targets this defective gene and inhibits BRAF and slows or even stops the production of melanoma cells. “Brain metastases in most (nine out of 10) patients given Dabrafenib reduced in size, with four patients' metastases completely resolving," said Dr. Gerald Falchook, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The drug Trametinib inhibits MEK, another defective gene. Both drugs delay disease progression and can increase patient survival by months or even years. In combination with other drugs, it may prove to deliver even better results.
A second new treatment works with a patient’s immune system. Instead of targeting the tumor and eradicating it directly, it strengthens the T cells enabling the T cells to attack the melanoma. Ipilimumab (brand name Yervoy) is a drug of this type that has been shown to work for years and even cure some patients. Chemotherapy, while working quicker to shrink tumors, usually only works for months.
Steven J. O’Day, M.D., chief of research and director of the melanoma program at The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Los Angeles, Ca. commented “Now, with a disease like metastasized melanoma – with no treatment options – we’ve suddenly broken through with two major areas [immunity and gene makeup] and many more to come.”
As good as the new drug therapies are, the best way to survive cancer is through early detection and treatment. Teams from Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Woman’s Hospital departments of Medicine and Pathology have discovered an indicator for malignant melanoma. Certain elements in normal pigment-producing skin cells and benign mole cells are missing in melanoma cells. The absence of those elements is a key indicator of possible melanoma.
Talk to your doctors about the latest developments in fighting melanoma to establish your individual treatment plan.
Written by Jo Northup