New Melanoma Drug Halts Tumor Growth

on June 5, 2012 9:14 AM EDT

Melanoma
A new melanoma drug halts tumor growth so effectively researchers ended the clinical trials early (Photo: Creative Commons)

A new drug is showing promise against melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, according to new research, presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting in Chicago on Monday.

Melanoma is aggressive, with tumors spreading growing and spreading approximately every two months, according to MSNBC. However, the new drug, trametinib, extended that time to almost five months, and while that may not sound like a large increase, researchers said it's indicative that the drug will perform even better in people with an earlier stage of cancer.

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Melanoma is a tumor of the cells that produce the pigment melanin, which is responsible for the color of your skin. Although melanoma occurs predominantly on skin, it can occur anywhere melanin is found, such as the eye or bowel. It is much less common than other skin cancers, but is responsible for 75 percent of skin cancer deaths, killing about 48,000 people worldwide annually, according to the World Health Organization.  Melanoma deaths account for $3.5 billion in lost productivity every year, according to the CDC.

Risk factors for melanoma include UV exposure, having many moles or moles that have an abnormal shape or color, fair skin, freckling, and light hair, a family history of melanoma, and having received a severe or blistering sunburn as a child or teen, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 is one of the best methods of prevention against melanoma and other kinds of skin cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wearing sunglasses, hats and seeking shade during midday hours also helps.

Trametinib works similarly to a drug approved last year, Zelboraf, which targets a mutant gene called BRAF that's found in about half of people with melanoma. However, the drug eventually stops controlling melanoma growth, so researchers set out to figure out a better treatment.

In the past, doctors prescribed a broad range of drugs to cancer patients in hopes that some would respond. By looking for a specific gene mutation, doctors can identify which patients will respond to the drug and spare the ones who won't from the side effects.

"Trametinib targets a protein called MEK in people with the BRAF gene which affects melanoma growth and a study found the drug stopped melanoma growth in 22 percent of patients taking it, compared with eight percent of patients taking chemotherapy," according to CBS News. "After six months, 81 percent of patients taking trametinib were living with the disease, compared with 67 percent of those who received chemotherapy."

The treatment was so effective researchers stopped the clinical trial and switched all patients over to trametinib. The maker of the drug, GlaxoSmithKline will take it to the FDA for approval.

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