Scientists believe they have found a way to fight melanoma, using an immune therapy treatment which can greatly increase the chances of surviving this deadliest form of skin cancer.
The American Cancer Society estimates that there are approximately 68,720 new cases of melanoma each year, leading to about 8,650 deaths.
Results from the study were reported recently at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's Annual Conference in Chicago and published online in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The drug ipilimumab (or the more pronounceable MDX-101) manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb, who also funded the study, is designed to aid the immune system in fighting melanoma. Ipilimumab is an antibody that binds to molecules on T-Cells, which are crucial to the body's natural immune response. White blood cells (or T-Cells) are used to encourage the body to fight the tumor, instead of using a drug to attack the tumor.
The study involved 676 people with advanced melanoma, considered inoperable, who had exhausted all other treatment options. During the study, patients were either given ipilimumab alone, with another immune boosting treatment, or with the immune boosting treatment alone.
After two years, 24 percent of the patients who were given ipilimumab by itself, or in combination, were alive, as opposed to 14 percent of those patients who were given just the immune boosting treatment.
The survival rate was increased to 10 months using ipilimumab, rather than just six months for the other treatment.
Researchers are optimistic that this drug can have an even greater effect if given to patients early on in diagnosis, rather than those with advanced cases.
It is important to note that 15 percent of the patients did suffer side effects, which although treatable with steroids, is believed to have been responsible for 14 deaths. This aside, the survival rate is still extremely impressive.
Dr. Steven J. O'Day, study leader and Director of the Melanoma Department at Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Los Angeles, reported the positive findings from the study. “For the first time a significant improvement in overall survival has been demonstrated in previously-treated advanced melanoma patients in a large, randomized phase 3 study,” O'Day explained.
Dr. F. Stephen Hodi, from the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and lead author of the study explained that “Results from the ipilimumab study are exciting and show the potential for harnessing the immune system to treat cancers like metastatic melanoma.”
It is hoped that after review and if approved by the Federal Drug Administration that it could be available by the end of the year.