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New Drug for Treating Patients with Melanoma

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, with over 13 million cases diagnosed in the United States annually. Among the cancers in this group, malignant melanomas are the deadliest because once they have metastasized and spread, they can become very aggressive. Nearly 68,000 people develop new cases of melanoma in the United States each year and that number is rising. Approximately 8,700 people die each year from malignant melanoma.

For the last two decades, treatment options have remained few. But the FDA has recently approved a new form of therapy which may offer a glimmer of hope to a few patients with certain kinds of metastatic melanoma.

The new drug, Yervoy, produced by Bristol Myers-Squibb, is a unique type of immunotherapy, which uses the body’s own defense system to fight cancer. The drug works by inhibiting a protein on the surface of some of the most important cells of our immune system, called the T-cells. By blocking the action of this particular protein, the drug turns the body’s immune system on, allowing it to go into major battle preparation to attack any foreign substance in the body, including malignant melanoma.

In clinical trials, patients with metastatic melanoma who were treated with Yervoy lived several months longer than those in a control group. Approximately 20 percent of the patients who received Yervoy in the trial lived at least two years, with some living longer.

“While a few months of extra time may not seem like a great medical advance, it is significant because patients with extensive melanoma often have a significantly shortened lifespan,” says medical oncologist and hematologist, Vasily J. . “This drug will not help all patients with malignant melanoma, but it will offer hope for some patients whose future was previously very dark.”

But this new drug does not come without its own side effects. For starters, it’s estimated that it may cost $120,000 for a complete course of treatment consisting of four infusions given over a three-month period. Also, because the drug turns on the body’s immune system, there can be some significant immune and autoimmune reactions including severe fatigue, skin reactions, and diarrhea. And lastly, Yervoy’s are not immediate because it takes some time for the immune system to begin its attack.

But for someone with extensive melanoma throughout the body, the side effects might be worth considering treatment. “For a patient, the extra time might mean going to his daughter’s wedding,” says Assikis. “Until now, the outlook for patients with advanced stages of this disease was really bleak. The fact that we are finally seeing some movement towards better treatments for malignant melanoma is exciting.”

MDanderson cancer network certified member

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