Targeted skin cancer drug launches in UK

 A life-extending pill for advanced melanoma that The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and The Royal Marsden Hospital helped develop is now available in the UK.

Vemurafenib, marketed by Roche as Zelboraf, is the first personalised treatment that has been shown in clinical trials to increase survival time for patients with a specific BRAF gene mutation. The European Commission has licensed the drug for adults with this mutation whose cancer is inoperable or which has spread.

The drug is based on research at the ICR* showing how the mutated BRAF gene is driving cancer development in around 50 per cent of malignant melanomas. Vemurafenib, which is taken as four pills twice a day, has been designed to block this cancer-causing form of the BRAF gene. A test is available to identify patients who have the BRAF V600 predictive biomarker and are therefore suitable for treatment.

In clinical trials led in the UK by The Royal Marsden Hospital, patients treated with vemurafenib lived an average of 13.2 months compared with 9.6 months for patients who received standard chemotherapy. These patients, who had BRAF-mutant advanced cancers, were almost nine times more likely to respond to vemurafenib than to standard chemotherapy (48.4 per cent versus 5.5 per cent).

The incidence of malignant melanoma is increasing in the UK, with around 10,000 people diagnosed and 2,300 deaths a year. Malignant melanoma disproportionately affects young people and is now the second most common cancer in people aged 15-34 in the UK. The disease is considered advanced if it has spread to other organs, and in this form it is difficult to treat and life-expectancy is short. Vemurafenib and a second drug launched last year called ipilimumab, an antibody treatment, represent the first major advances in treatment for 30 years for patients with advanced melanoma.

Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, Professor Alan Ashworth, says: “Advanced melanoma is a devastating disease and new treatments are desperately needed, so it’s especially pleasing that patients will now be able to benefit from a drug that we helped develop. The success of vemurafenib demonstrates the importance of our approach to developing personalised medicines for cancer. Understanding the genetic and molecular causes of cancer helps us to create new, targeted therapies that - as this drug shows - can prove extremely effective.”

Chief Executive of The Royal Marsden Cally Palmer says: “This is an important and significant step forward for the treatment of patients with advanced melanoma. We are delighted that our patients were among the first in the UK to benefit from this clinical trial, led by Dr James Larkin at The Royal Marsden.”

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