Until recently, a metastatic melanoma diagnosis meant cancer had spread so far into lymph nodes and other parts of a patient’s body that any hope of overcoming the disease was futile.
But researchers at UAMS have played a large role in developing and testing two groundbreaking treatments that are adding years to melanoma patients’ lives.
Previously only 8 percent of patients had a chance of survival. Even for those lucky few, the available treatment came with unpleasant side effects and was only given in an intensive care unit setting to patients in good enough physical condition to withstand it.
“Unlike other cancers, chemo and radiation are not as effective for melanoma,” said Laura Hutchins, M.D., a professor and director for clinical research in the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. “The only other hope was an immune treatment that only worked in a very small number of patients. It just wasn’t very practical and not very many people were candidates for it.”
But in the last two years, two new breakthrough drugs tested at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute have become available.
One of the drugs is Ipilimumab, marketed as Yervoy, which blocks a signal that cancers send out through the body to suppress the immune system. In nearly 30 percent of patients, this intravenous treatment has shown long-term control of the disease.
“I’ve had patients with cancer that has spread all over their bodies and they are alive and well five, six, eight years after taking this drug,” Hutchins said.
The use of ipilimumab at UAMS began as a clinical trial eight years ago.
“Because we participated in this clinical trial, I have extensive experience using it,” Hutchins said. “It just came on the market in the last couple years, but we’ve been treating patients with it for about eight years.”
That experience is key because some of the side effects are ones that most oncologists are not used to dealing with and could potentially be deadly if they are undetected.
While it hasn’t been around long enough to know for sure, this drug could very well be a cure, Hutchins said. UAMS also is in a trial using this drug for high-risk patients to prevent reoccurrences.
The second breakthrough drug, Zelboraf, or vemurafanib, is an oral medication that works in nearly 80 percent of metastatic melanoma patients. Though not a cure, it rapidly shrinks the cancer and nearly doubles the length of time a person can expect to live with the disease.
Hutchins said Zelboraf can work more efficiently when paired with other drugs to prevent some of its side effects. UAMS is working to get a clinical trial activated to test combinations.
“It’s exciting because there are new generations of these drugs being developed and we hope to continue being among the first to use them,” Hutchins said. “This disease is something that was universally very fatal very quickly, so it’s dramatically different nowadays to those of us who have been doing this for a while.”