Federal health officials expect more than 76,000 new cases of melanoma, or skin cancer, this year. Of those, a small percentage of patients will unfortunately see the cancer spread to other organs, advancing to metastatic melanoma.
When this happens, the survival rate is grim. Currently, doctors have very few affective ways to treat the advanced cancer, but a new class of drugs could soon change that.
"It targets the interaction between the tumor cell and the immune system, takes the brake off of the immune system and enhances the patient's anti-tumor immunity," said surgical oncologist Dr. John Lyons.
The immune system's job is to fight off foreign things in the body, like tumors. However, Lyons explains that with time and some chemical reactions, a tumor can trick immune cells into not attacking by shutting them down. That allows tumors to grow and spread.
The new drugs, called PD-1 inhibitors, work by blocking that reaction and turning the immune cells back on. Unlike chemotherapy or radiation, the PD-1 inhibitors do not attack the tumor directly.
Lyons says finding a way to stimulate the immune system to fight tumors on its own has been the focus of researchers for decades. The first signs of success were with a similar class of drugs called CTLA-4 inhibitors in 2011.
"We've seen clinical responses in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 percent and of those people who respond, we've seen very deep durable responses," said Lyons. "Some of these patients have had 80 percent, 100 percent of their tumor bourdon go away for a long period of time."
The drug companies that have developed these treatments expect FDA approval by late 2014 or early 2015, which Lyons says is exciting for doctors and patients.
"It means that some of them will have a much longer life expectancy than previously expected and in some cases we will turn this into a chronic disease," said Lyons.
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