A twice-daily skin cancer drug almost doubles the survival times of advanced cancer patients, American scientists have discovered.
This is compared to the average of six to 10 months of those who had conventional skin cancer treatment, chemotherapy drug dacarbazine.
Vemurafenib (marketed as Zelboraf) has been recommended for approval in Europe by the European Commission and is one of two treatments offered to late-stage melanoma skin cancer (when the tumour begins to spread to other organs).
It is also due to be investigated for clinical and cost effectiveness by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).
This drug was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the US last year and is the first new drug in more than a decade that offers treatment for advanced melanoma.
The study involved putting 132 people with metastic melanoma on the vemurafenib drug. Researchers discovered that 58% of those who took the skin cancer drug lived longer than 12 months and on average they survived 15.9 months prior to the treatment.
However, researchers added that vemurafenib is only suitable for around half of people with advanced melanoma, as it targets a particular BRAF gene mutation called V600, that is only present in 50% of melanoma sufferers.
“This study shows that Zelboraf changes the natural history of this disease. This data is beyond what I would have expected,” says Dr Antoni Ribas, professor of haematology and oncology from the study, as reported by the BBC.
The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) was the first to discover the link between gene mutation and melanoma skin cancer.
In 2009, ICR scientists found that BRAF gene is damaged in up to 70% of human melanoma and later found that the BRAF mutation leads to the development of deadly melanoma cancer and is the driving force behind the disease.
“We know that excessive sun exposure is the main cause of skin cancer, but not much is known about the genetics behind it, professor Richard Marais from the ICR said at the time, in a statement.
“Our study shows that the genetic damage of BRAF is the first step in skin cancer development. Understanding this process will help us develop more effective treatments for the disease.”
Commenting on the latest research, Elizabeth Woolf, head of Cancer Research UK’s information website, CancerHelp UK, told The Huffington Post: “This is an interesting, impressive but relatively small trial of a promising new-generation melanoma drug, which Cancer Research UK is proud to have played a role in developing. But there are still questions that remain unanswered.
“Everyone on the trial had the drug, so we cannot tell how large the benefits are, compared to people who didn’t have it, or had another treatment. And because the drug targets a particular gene fault, only half of all melanoma patients are eligible.
“About half of those treated seem to benefit, so it could potentially help roughly a quarter of patients with advanced melanoma overall.
“Looking at these uncertainties, and now that the drug is available to UK cancer patients, it will be interesting to see what price the manufacturer charges so as not to place too great a strain on already scarce NHS resources.”
Caroline Springer, professor of Biological Chemistry at The Institute of Cancer Research, told The Huffington Post: “Vemurafenib is the first gene targeted drug for malignant melanoma and represents a major breakthrough, with very promising survival figures in these and other trials.
“Unfortunately it is not effective in all patients with malignant melanoma, only those whose cancer is driven by mutant BRAF. My team is working on a different type of inhibitor that has the potential to help up to three-quarters of patients with malignant melanoma, including those whose cancer is driven by different genetic faults. We are in the late stages of development for the clinical trial of this drug.”
According to Macmillan cancer support, around 10,400 people are diagnosed with melanoma each year in the UK. In women the cancer is most commonplace to develop on the legs and in men, it’s on the chest or back area.
Melanoma develops from cells called melanocytes that produce a pigment called melanin. When our skin is exposed to a lot of sun, the melanocytes increase the production of melanin which allows the skin to absorb more ultra violet rays, making the skin appear tanned - a sign that the skin is damaged.
If the melanocyte cells multiple in growth and divide quicker than usual, the cells can grow deeper into the layers of the skin, which contain tiny blood vessels and lymph channels.
If the melanoma cells enter the blood vessels they are able to travel to other parts of the body, causing advanced, metastatic or secondary melanoma.