Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer type in the United States and it’s becoming increasingly more so, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which in 2011 launched an aggressive effort to find more effective treatments.
The result is two new FDA-approved melanoma drugs and one treatment combination — Zelboraf (vemurafenib), Tafinlar (dabrafenib), and Mekinist (trametinib) in combination with Tafinlar — that have shown in clinical studies to shrink tumors in about half of patients.
A 50 percent effective rate may not sound like progress. But prior to 2011, the five standard chemotherapy drugs that were FDA-approved for treating melanoma were effective in less than 15 percent of patients.
“Most people who took those drugs didn’t get much benefit from them,” said Patricia Keegan M.D., an oncologist with FDA.
The emphasis for finding novel treatments have taken on importance for cancer researchers. New skin cancers are epidemic with significant increases reported in every U.S. state — up to 300 percent between 1994 and 2010 — according to a study published in the Archives of Dermatology.
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Although melanoma is less common, accounting for less than 2 percent of skin cancer cases, it is by far the most aggressive — and deadly.
In recent years, melanoma skin cancers have risen dramatically across the country, with Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia reporting the highest increases — 3.2-3.7 per 100,000 people, according to the latest U.S. Department of Health and Human Services surveillance report.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that more than 2 million new nonmelanoma and 76,100 melanoma skin cancers will be diagnosed in 2014.
Skin cancer becomes most dangerous when it invades normal tissue and spreads throughout the body. Less aggressive types cause fewer deaths but patients can face significant disfigurement.