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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 21:23 EDT

New Melanoma Drug Doubles Survival

February 28, 2012

(Ivanhoe Newswire) — About 70,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year in the United States. Of those, nearly 8,000 people will die of the disease. However there is good news. For the first time, researchers are able to report that a newly approved drug for patients with metastatic melanoma nearly doubles median survival times, a finding that will change the way this deadly form of skin cancer is treated.

“About 50 percent of patients with metastatic melanoma, or 4,000 people a year, have the BRAF mutation and can be treated with Zelboraf,” senior author Dr. Antoni Ribas, a professor of hematology/oncology and a researcher at UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center was quoted as saying.

Zelboraf is a pill that can be taken twice a day. It was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011 and it blocks the mutated BRAF protein.

Fifty-three percent of the patients who took Zelboraf had an objective response to the drug, meaning their tumors shrunk by more than 30 percent. An additional 30 percent of patients had tumor responses of a lesser magnitude. Only 14 percent of patients with the BRAF mutation failed to respond to Zelboraf.

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, Ribas said.

“We knew this drug would make the melanomas shrink in a large proportion of patients and that it worked better than chemotherapy,” Ribas said.

“We did not know that patients taking Zelboraf were living longer until now.”

“This study shows that Zelboraf changes the natural history of this disease,” Ribas said. “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 changes the way we treat metastatic melanoma.”

SOURCE: New England Journal of Medicine, February  2012