Doctors may soon have a new weapon in the fight against melanoma, one of the deadliest types of cancer. An experimental drug called PLX4032, developed by pharmaceutical company Roche, was found to be extraordinarily effective as a treatment against melanoma in a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. When administered to a group of 32 patients who had melanoma tumors in advanced stages, the drug caused tumors to shrink either partially or completely in 26, or 81%, of the participants.
For a cancer as traditionally difficult to treat as melanoma, PLX4032’s success rate is remarkable. The drug works at a genetic level by targeting what’s known as a BRAF mutation, a condition commonly associated with melanoma and other cancers. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of PLX4032 was tempered by the prospect that its tumor-shrinking ability may be fleeting. In a Reuters interview, Dr. Keith Flaherty, who worked on the study, said that cancers ultimately returned, with the benefits usually lasting around six months.
The results will likely come as welcome to millions of cancer patients around the world, regardless of PLX4032’s apparent lack of long-term efficacy. Skin cancer is the most common cancer of all, according to the American Cancer Society, and if increasing sunscreen use is any indication, one of the most feared. Although governments and medical organizations like the American Cancer Society have recommended increased use of sunscreen since the 1990s, rates of melanoma remain on the rise, with an estimated 68,130 new cases in the United States in 2010, according to the ACS.
While melanoma is typically found in the skin, it can actually occur in other parts of the body as well, including the eyes and mouth. Although responsible for a majority of skin cancer deaths, melanoma makes up less than 5% of reported cases. More common skin cancers are basal and squamous carcinomas, though these typically pose far less of a threat than melanoma. While the ACS advocates sun avoidance and sunscreen use as the best ways to prevent these cancers, there is some debate as to whether or not sunscreens protect against melanoma. Another consideration is Vitamin D, produced by the skin in direct sunlight, which may actually reduce overall risk of cancer and improve survival in cancer patients.
The association between sunlight and cancer may remain controversial, but drugs like PLX4032 offer hope to those already diagnosed with the disease. Despite the disappointment that PLX4032 is not a permanent cancer cure, the drug seems to show no adverse side effects, and should offer patients and doctors a new treatment option. Most promising of all, the drug’s astonishingly potent anti-tumor action hints at the future effectiveness of cancer treatments which act by targeting genetic pathways. PLX4032’s recent study success may very well signal an evolution in cancer therapy and pave the way for a new class of drugs which operate at the molecular and genetic level.