New anti-cancer drug extends life of melanoma victims

A new experimental drug developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Medarex extends the lives of patients with advanced melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, researchers said.

The results paved the way for dealing with a form of cancer that has few treatment options. Melanoma cases have climbed faster than any other cancer type over the past 30 years, researchers said.

Nearly a quarter - 24 percent - of patients with advanced melanoma survived for an unusual two years after being administered intravenously with ipilimumab.

Forty-four to 46 percent of patients treated with ipilimumab were alive after one year of trials compared to 25 percent of patients treated with other methods, the study pointed out.

"Randomized clinical trials have repeatedly failed to demonstrate an improvement in overall survival in patients with advanced melanoma," said lead author Steven O'Day, who heads the melanoma program at The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in southern California.

O'Day described the study findings as "an exciting advance, both for patients with advanced melanoma and for the field of cancer immunology."

He presented the study at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting this weekend in Chicago.

Lynn Schuchter, professor of medicine at Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said these findings were "really exciting" because ipilimumab and other new cancer drugs produced far fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy.

"This drug takes the brake off and allows for further immunological response, and this is going to be the first time that a trial with patients with advanced melanoma shows a survival benefit," Schuchter said.

She noted that just six months ago, doctors really had no effective therapy for patients with stage 4 melanoma.

Ipilimumab belongs to a new class of drugs that activate the immune system's T cells, which then seek and destroy melanoma cells, instead of targeting the cancer cell itself like previous treatments.

In the clinical test, patients who took ipilimumab or were treated with a combination of the antibody and a peptide vaccine, also aimed at boosting the immune system, lived a median of 10 months, against 6.5 months for those administered a placebo or a peptide vaccine alone.

The Phase III clinical trial studied some 600 melanoma patients in several countries. Patients generally tolerated the treatment well, the researchers said.

Experts pointed out that given the success of the trials, the US Food and Drug Administration was expected to grant permission to market the medicine relatively quickly.

Ipilimumab was forecast to generate more than 400 million dollars in sales in the first several years following its approval.

Melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of cancer, and the number of people affected by it has been increasing for 30 years, according to the World Health Organization.

Skin cancer annually kills 66,000 people around the world, the WHO said, and 80 percent of these deaths are attributable to melanoma.

As many as 68,000 new cases of melanoma were diagnosed in the United States last year, and about 8,600 people died of the disease.

In France, 7,000 cases of melanoma are detected each year, and an average of 1,300 of them have a fatal outcome.

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