Advanced melanoma patients taking an experimental pill, vemurafenib, developed by Roche and Daiichi Sankyo were 63 percent less likely to die than patients given chemotherapy, according to a new trial presented on Sunday at a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.
Dr. Paul Chapman of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the study's lead investigator called the results an "unprecedented level of difference" for patients with advanced melanoma, who typically survive just eight months on current treatments.
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In a separate study presented at ASCO, previously untreated people with advanced melanoma treated with Bristol-Myers Squibb's Yervoy, or ipilimumab, plus chemotherapy lived an average of two months longer than people who got chemotherapy alone.
Yervoy works by spurring the immune system to fight off the cancer. Vemurafenib is designed for use in patients with tumors that have a mutation in a gene known as BRAF that allows melanoma cells to grow. About half of all melanomas have the genetic aberration.
The Roche trial included 675 patients with previously untreated, inoperable late-stage metastatic melanoma with the BRAF mutation.
After a median three months of treatment, vemurafenib patients also had a 74 percent reduction in the risk of cancer progression compared to dacarbazine.
"This is a huge difference," said Dr. Antoni Ribas, an oncologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied vemurafenib. "Even if it diminishes over time, who cares?"
Nearly half of patients treated with the Roche drug had tumor shrinkage, compared with 5.5 percent with chemotherapy.
Side effects included skin rashes and joint pain. About 18 percent of patients developed a low-grade skin cancer.