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Treatment Breakthroughs For Skin Cancer Patients

YervoyResearchers reported Sunday on the clinical trials of two new drugs that can greatly increase the survival rate in patients that suffer from metastatic melanoma. In one of the clinical trials, the results were so dramatic the trial was halted early.

The two new drugs are Yervoy, manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb, and vemurafenib, manufactured by Roche and Plexxikon, Inc., a biotechnology company in Berkeley.

Dr. Marc E. Ernstoff of Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, N.H. is quoted in a report in the Los Angeles Times while writing an editorial about vemurafenib "that the development of the drug is a major defining moment that will have an important effect on survival and quality of life," although the mutation the drug targets, the V600E mutation in a gene called BRAF which is involved in cell growth, occurs in only about 47% of melanoma patients, and vemurafenib only helps about half of of the 47%.

Still, many metastatic melanoma patients who do not obtain benefits from vemurafenib may benefit from Yervoy, which stimulates the immune system to fight off tumors. Yervoy was approved by the FDA in March based on earlier results that showed it was more effective than a vaccine used to treat melanoma. The recent results now show that Yervoy may be more effective than conventional chemotherapy.

The manufacturers of vemurafenib and Yervoy are in the planning stages of clinical trials where both medications will be used together to see if the drug combination improves outcomes.

Dr. Sylvia Adams of the New York University School of Medicine and spokeswoman for ASCO stated to the Times that the new findings are "absolutely a major breakthrough for patients who have metastatic or unresectable melanoma."

The chief drawback of the drugs is cost. Yervoy costs $120,000 for a course of treatment. In addition, the manufacturers of vemurafenib are expected to apply to the FDA shortly for approval to market the drug but they have not yet announced a price.

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