WEDNESDAY, Feb. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Melanoma that has spread to other areas of the body is almost always fatal, but a new drug appears to double survival for those with a certain type of this skin cancer, researchers report.
A mutation in the BRAF protein occurs in about half the people who develop melanoma. Researchers say Zelboraf (vemurafenib), a drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011, blocks that mutation, thereby killing the cancer cells.
"We demonstrated in a large group of patients overall survival approached 16 months, which is far beyond what we have seen in other trials," said lead researcher Dr. Jeffrey Sosman, a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn.
Survival for people with advanced melanoma is usually six to 10 months. Some new drugs have extended that to maybe 11 months, "but this is the first time we have shown such a long extension in survival," he said.
All of the patients had late-stage (stage 4) melanoma. Sosman said it's hoped that Zelboraf will work even better when given sooner.
"If we use it in an earlier stage, then we are hoping to cure patients who would not be cured otherwise," he said.
Results of this phase 2 trial -- undertaken to assess the effectiveness and safety of the drug -- are published in the Feb. 23 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
For more than a year, Sosman's team followed 132 patients with previously treated metastatic melanoma, meaning the cancer had spread and was considered inoperable.
Zelboraf is a pill that patients take twice a day, and more than half who took the drug responded to it, the researchers said.
A response meant more than a 30 percent reduction in the size of tumors. Only 14 percent of patients failed to show any response to Zelboraf whatsoever, meaning their disease continued to progr
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