Future of Cancer Treatment Brightened by Melanoma Breakthroughs

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Metastatic melanoma has recently acquired some formidable foes, according to two new trials presented at the most current meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Melanoma is a worldwide problem. Each year, over 70,000 people in the U.S. alone are diagnosed with this particularly virulent form of skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Within the first five years, 85% of those people diagnosed will die.

Moreover, the disease is particularly a problem for the elderly because they have had more years of sun exposure than the young. According to the American Cancer Society, the death rate for the disease has been dropping since the 1990s for those younger than 50, but has been stable or rising in those older than 50. The Melanoma Center says that the median age for diagnosis is between 45 and 55. The American Melanoma Foundation says that men older than 50 are at a higher risk of developing melanoma than the general population.

There is, however, hope for melanoma sufferers and their caregivers. Recent research has discovered two new drugs that show great promise in the treatment of metastatic melanoma, Yervoy and Vemurafenib.

At a press conference held to discuss these drugs and their accompanying studies, Dr. Lynn Schuchter, a Medical Oncologist at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a board member of ASCO , had this to say about these fresh discoveries, "We think that this is an unprecedented time for celebration for our patients. Really unprecedented hope, and, I would say, pace of discovery that leads to effective therapies."

The first study investigated the effects of a new cancer treatment created by Bristol-Myer Squibb called, Yervoy. This treatment works by stimulating the immune system through bonding with and hindering the performance of a molecule that would otherwise limit the functioning of the immune system. This enables the immune system to more effectively combat the cancer. In this particular study, 502 people stricken with metastatic melanoma participated.

Positive results from a previous research study led Yervoy to be approved by the FDA in March for use on people who have inoperable melanoma. The most recent study, funded by Bristol-Meyers Squibb and conducted by researchers at the Sloan-Kettering Center in New York, was designed to test Yervoy's effectiveness in the presence of chemotherapy drugs on people had not received previous treatment for their metastatic melanoma.

A common side effect of chemotherapy drugs is a weakened immune system. This is because chemotherapy is designed to destroy rapidly dividing cells and the cells of the immune system fall under this category. Cancer cells divide rapidly, but so do the blood cells central to the functioning of a person's immune system.

Despite the immunosuppressant effects of chemotherapy, Yervoy was still able to extend the average survival period for people with metastatic melanoma from 9.1 months to 11.2 months.

Another study presented at the conference, and also led by researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Center in New York, addressed another new treatment for metastatic melanoma. This particular treatment was developed by the biotechnology company Genentech, and has not yet been approved by the FDA.

The drug investigated in this study, known as Vemurafenib, comes in pill form and is meant to help people that have tumors with a specific gene mutation called BRAF. This particular gene mutation occurs in approximately half of all cases of melanoma.

The study found that, after being given Vemurafenib pills for three months, people stricken with metastatic melanoma were 74% less likely to experience progression of their cancer than if they had been treated with a chemotherapy drug called Dacarbazine.

The studies conducted on Vemurafenib and Yervoy have a more far-reaching impact than just providing hope to people with melanoma.

Caregivers and those who suffer from cancers of all kinds should take heart in these research findings because they represent the development of successful treatments that will eventually be able to be applied to different types of cancer.

At the conference, Dr. Schuchter said that melanoma is a "wonderful example" in cancer treatment of how more effective therapies can be developed, once you understand what's driving the disease.

For more information on cancer:

Skin Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Questions to Ask the Doctor After a Cancer Diagnosis

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