New Skin Cancer Drug Almost Doubles Survival Times In Some Metastatic Melanoma Patients: the research and how you can prevent skin cancer

by Suzy OGawa on February 27, 2012

A 2 cm melanoma on the leg of an older woman. Source: Dr. Catherine OGawa with OGawa Dermatology

The Research

New research out of the Jonsson Cancer Center at the University of California found that a new cancer drug, vemurafenib or Zelboraf, almost doubles the survival times of advanced melanoma cancer sufferers. Previous skin cancer treatments, such as dacarbazine, a chemotherapy drug, provides only a six to 10 month survival time. The new drug was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011, and is the first new drug for advanced melanoma in over a decade. The study sample included 132 patients with stage 4 metastatic melanoma  and a BRAF gene mutation, who took the vemurafenib drug twice daily. Results show that 53% of the patients lived longer than 12 months and on average they survived 15.9 months and saw a reduction in tumor size of 30%. The caveat is that the drug is only suitable for those who have a particular BRAF gene mutation called V600, or 50% of those with melanomas. According to the BBC News, “The treatment is one of two drugs for late-stage melanoma, approved on fast-track in the US last year, which offer hope for patients with advanced melanoma.”

What is Melanoma?

Melanomas develop from the overproduction of the pigment, melanin, in specific skin cells called melanocytes. Too much sun exposure can increase the production of melanin, allowing the skin to absorb more ultra violet rays. This results in skin damage, otherwise known as a tan. If the cells producing melanin multiply in growth and divide quicker than usual, these cells can reach deeper into the skin’s layers. These deeper layers contain blood vessels and lymph channels, allowing the melanoma cells to travel to other parts of the body. This causes advanced metastatic or secondary melanoma.Cancer.

Prevention

Source: John Loo- Flikr Creative Commons

This new drug is great news for skin cancer sufferers, and really, anyone who has spent time in the sun, as we are all susceptible. Skin cancer, like heart disease, is one of those diseases that really benefits from prevention. I know sunscreen and skin protection are the furthest thing from you mind in these cloudy winter days. But sun protection is still important in the winter and when it is cloudy. Growing up, I had the lucky blessing of having a Dermatologist for a mom and an Ophthalmologist for a dad. Thus, I was always acutely aware of the harmful effects of the sun on my skin and my eyes. If it wasn’t the cancer they scared me with growing up, it was the leathery skin and going blind that did. And so started my enduring relationship with sunscreen and sunglasses. I think this topic, while pervasive in the media, still needs attention; a different approach to prevention. Even with taxes on tanning beds (including new laws that restrict teenage use of tanning beds), and skin cancer prevalence increasing, there is still nonchalance in regards to protecting oneself against the sun. Just a quick fact for any of you still using tanning beds out there. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “research shows that indoor tanning (e.g., tanning beds, sun lamps) increases a person’s risk of getting melanoma by 75%.” That is a staggering percentage!

Even with a Dr. Dermatologist in the family, I have always had a dichotomous relationship with sunscreen. My mom is 100% Caucasian and must be diligent with the application of sunscreen and keeping out of the sun during peak times. However, my dad is half Japanese, which makes me and my siblings a quarter Japanese. Our yellow skin does not burn as easily as my mom’s and actually develops a nice deep tan (which is really skin damage!). This would mean that I would not think twice about using SPF 15 instead of SPF 30, or not worry so much about everyday SPF use.

Unfortunately, many people with the ability to tan or those with dark skin, mistake this with not being susceptible to skin cancer. Well, hear this, a few years ago my family had its first skin cancer scare when my dad developed a cancerous growth on his nose. He was just one of 3.5 million cases of skin cancer diagnosed in the U.S. in 2010.  My mom noticed it right away, and so it was not life-threatening, just a wake-up call.

However, every year my mom and Dermatologists like her, diagnose advanced stages of skin cancer, in patients of every age and ethnicity. Skin cancer does not discriminate. Aside from this being a plea for you to protect your skin, it is a request that you pay attention to your skin and get checked out by a dermatologist when you noticed something off, such as an irregular or discolored mole. Even if you don’t have any specific skin worries, you should still see your dermatologist at least once a year for a well-skin check-up.

While advancements in skin cancer treatment are prolonging lives, skin cancer still kills, and if if doesn’t, it greatly reduces one’s quality of life. As for practicing what I preach, at the time this post is published, I will be in sunny Orlando for my Spring Break. There is no doubt that I will be slathered in sunscreen and viewing the world through polarized lenses.

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If you don’t currently have a dermatologist, you can search for one at the following link, http://www.aad.org/for-the-public/home. Make sure your Dermatologist is Board Certified in Dermatology.

For more information on how to protect you skin as well as information on skin disease and cancer, check out these resources from the American Academy of Dermatology:

Skin Cancer Prevention: http://www.aad.org/skin-care-and-safety/skin-cancer-prevention

Skin Health Tips: http://www.aad.org/skin-care-and-safety/skin-health-tips/skin-health-tips

Skin Conditions: http://www.aad.org/skin-conditions

More info from The Skin Cancer Foundation

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News coverage on the new drug:

http://www.medpagetoday.com/HematologyOncology/OtherCancers/31312

http://www.webmd.com/melanoma-skin-cancer/news/20120222/zelboraf-may-double-survival-for-some-melanoma-patients

http://consumer.healthday.com/Article.asp?AID=662041

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9098748/Skin-cancer-pill-doubles-survival.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/CancerPreventionAndTreatment/drug-deadly-melanoma/story?id=15767285#.T0fDvfWaKSo

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References:

Sosman JA,et al. (Feb. 23, 2012). “Survival in BRAF V600- Mutant Advance Melanoma Treated with Vermurafenib.” In The New England Journal of Medicine, 366:8, 707-714.

American Academy of Dermatology. http://www.aad.org/

 

 

Angela February 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Hi Suzy! Thank you for the post. Super helpful advice! Those drugs have very peculiar names. Have to confess that Iooked them up, as they sounded almost too sci-fi to me (straight from Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’?) to be real medication (maybe links would have been helpful here). Also wondered about the structure of the post. I think the melanoma explanation needs to come earlier. The other thing that feels a bit odd is the contrast between the ‘research’ and ‘prevention’ part. They come across as rather disconnected, both in style and content. Not sure what the solution is. Maybe a different bridge between them?

Suzy OGawa March 4, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Aren’t most drug names alien? heh. I agree with your comments, though. I had a hard time organizing this one, and ultimately could not find a successful solution. Thank you for reading!

Gaythia Weis February 28, 2012 at 4:18 pm

This post does a great job of balancing the personal interest story with the informative. I think that rather than a bridge between sections, as suggested above, I’d recommend shuffling the order of the sections. Start with some of the personal parts in the lead in to the story. Then, in my opinion, the definition, because that needs to come before the research for the research to make sense. And the research is the technical part. So getting in plenty of human interest hooks first will help the medicine go down. You do have a lot of good information here, and it is motivating. By the end of the article, I was read to head off to a mirror to check for any blotches. And when I go out, my hat will be on!

Suzy OGawa March 4, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comments!

Catherine OGawa March 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm

My impression is different. The news is the new drugs. The scary part is how exciting a very minimal increase in survival is. The sun protection is old hat – stuff you hear about all the time but ignore. The seriousness of the consequences makes the message about sun-protection sink in. (By the way almost all drugs have incomprehensible names and more than one name for the same drug – the brand name and the generic name.)

Suzy OGawa March 4, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Thanks for your insight!

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