New Drug May Help Save Lives for Melanoma Sufferers

On Thursday the Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug that appears to extend the lives of those suffering from a type of skin cancer

An FDA-approved drug has been designed to treat advanced stages of melanoma.

Research shows that every hour one person dies from melanoma, the fast-spreading cancer with more fatal cases than any other skin disease. But with a new breakthrough drug, researchers say they’ve found a way to prolong the lives of those affected.

The FDA on Thursday approved Zelboraf, a drug designed to treat advanced stages of melanoma in which the cancer spreads to other organs (metastasis) or becomes inoperable (unresectability). According to the American Skin Association, it is in those stages that the cancer becomes deadly.

Zelboraf specifically targets an abnormal gene mutation that’s present in about half of all melanoma tumors. The approval came as a result of a successful trial performed by the New England Journal of Medicine in which 675 late-stage melanoma patients, none of whom had received prior treatment, took Zelboraf for six months. The results were astounding: At the end of the trial, 63 percent fewer patients died who were on the drug than in the control group.

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The new drug “represents a breakthrough accomplishment” in patient therapy, said DC’s Melanoma Research Alliance President Wendy K.D. Selig, in a statement. It marks the year’s second milestone in skin cancer research: Five months ago, the FDA approved Yervoy, a similar remedy that’s also been shown to prolong the lives of late-stage melanoma patients. Though successful, Yervoy’s numbers don’t match up with Zelboraf’s.

Despite the achievements, Selig says this is hardly the end for melanoma research. Since half the patients don’t have the mutation Zelboraf targets, there “remains an ongoing urgent need” for the 70,000 annual melanoma diagnoses.

A test to detect the presence the gene mutation has been approved along with the drug, which is expected to cost nearly $10,000 per month and be available in less than two weeks, the New York Times reports.

Read more details about the Zelboraf study here.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.