Patients with advanced skin cancer can now hope to extend life. The new treatment unveiled at a cancer meeting in Chicago has been praised by the cancer care fraternity.

Vemurafenib is an experimental drug that attacks the root of the cancerous source. Developed by Plexxikon and Roche/Genentech, it targets a genetic mutation that causes melanoma in nearly 50 percent of affected patients.

In a study presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (1) meeting in Chicago, 84 percent of patients treated with Vemurafenib increases survival rate by 6 months, compared with 64 percent of patients who took the conventional chemotherapy.

Dr. Lynn Schucter, chief of hematology oncology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center is optimistic about the targeted therapy and hopes it will pave a radical path in treating cancer.

Cancer occurs when faulty genes send irregular signals to the body’s cells, causing them to grow out of control. Vemurafenib can stop the flawed signals, blocking cancer cell division without disturbing healthy cells and aid in more efficient treatment with minimal side effects.

Dr. Gerald Falchook, assistant professor in the department of investigational cancer therapeutics at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, explains that conventional treatments like chemotherapy are basically a one size fits all, and is not efficient in targeting the source.

How effective is it Vemurafenib?

Vemurafenib is aimed at a particular gene mutation, making it the prototypal targeted therapy for the disease. The drug was noticed when a substantial 70 percent of those with the mutation responded to it in safety testing beforehand.

The study was led by Dr. Paul Chapman of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and involved 675 patients from all over the globe with inoperable, advanced melanoma including the gene mutation.

The patients were given vemurafenib pills two times a day or infusions every three weeks of the chemotherapy drug dacarbazine.

After 6 months, 84 percent of patients on vemurafenib were alive compared to 64 percent of the others.

Less than ten percent on the drug developed serious side effects that included skin rashes, joint pain, fatigue, diarrhea and hair loss. Around 18 percent of patients showed a less serious form of skin cancer. About 33 percent had to get their doses varied due to side effects.

The study is ongoing, and the research team is positive about the treatment as the patients have shown an improvement with shrinkage of many tumors. Even as soon as 72 hours, some patients’ symptoms showed improvement and pain medicines were reduced.

Dr. April Salama, a Duke University melanoma specialist, hails the impressive results and points out that the treatment has benefited patients who historically did not fare very well.

The study was funded by the drug’s manufacturers, and many of the researchers provide consultation or are employed by them. The companies are hoping to market the drug and a companion test for the gene mutation in America and Europe. However, the manufacturers have not determined the price.

Targeted therapy like Vemurafenib can work on any cancer with genetic roots, not just melanoma.

Facts about Melanoma

  • Melanoma is the most common type of cancer, affecting about 70,000 new people each year. It’s also one of the most fatal, killing a predictable 9,000 people every year.
  • Malignant melanoma kills about 2,000 people in the UK annually, and more than 11,000 people develop the disease every year.
  • There were 68,000 new cases and 8,700 deaths from melanoma in the United States in 2010, according to the American Cancer Society (2).

Sources:
1) American Society of Clinical Oncology
2) American Cancer Society