June 2011 eBrief: Oncology Conference Puts Melanoma Therapies in the Spotlight

Tue, 2011-06-14

Groundbreaking Melanoma Therapies Featured at ASCO’s Annual Meeting

Promising results from two separate melanoma treatment studies stole the spotlight at the recent American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting.

The research featured two groundbreaking treatments for advanced melanoma, both of which have been shown to increase survival in patients.  The two therapies – Bristol-Myers Squibb’s recently approved Yervoy and Roche’s investigational drug vemurafenib – have given the melanoma community a renewed sense of hope in the battle against this deadly disease. 

Research funded by MRF grants helped to lay the groundwork for these crucial breakthroughs.  Never before has melanoma received such a heightened level of attention from the world’s oncology community. Two of the six plenary sessions at ASCO 2011 focused on melanoma, underscoring the importance and impact of these two new therapies for patients.  Those presentations, attended by thousands of the world’s leading oncologists, were given by Paul Chapman, M.D., a long-time member of the MRF’s Scientific Advisory Council, and Jedd Wolchok, M.D., Ph.D., a past MRF grant recipient.  Both researchers work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Other members of MRF’s own Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) and Melanoma Breakthrough Consortium (MBC) briefed their peers on the promising results of these studies and other exciting developments in the melanoma research landscape.  These included Antoni Ribas, M.D. of the University of California, Jeffrey Alan Sosman, M.D. of Vanderbilt University and Christopher D. Lao, M.D. of the University of Michigan.

Yervoy, called ipilimumab during its experimental phase, was approved in March by the FDA. The drug – the first new therapy approved for the treatment of advanced melanoma in more than 13 years – works by bolstering the body’s immune system to fight the disease. The study found Yervoy combined with dacarbazine extended survival by two months compared to dacarbazine and a placebo. 

Vemurafenib works by putting the brakes on a mutated gene called BRAF that drives tumor growth in about half of all melanoma patients.  Researchers found the drug reduced tumor size and slowed cancer progression in 74 percent of patients who received the treatment.

MRF Experts a Resource in Wave of Coverage

The importance of ASCO within the research community is reflected in the tremendous amount of news coverage that occurs around the meeting.  Members of the MRF’s Scientific Advisory Committee and Melanoma Breakthrough Consortium, as well as the leadership of MRF were all able to serve as sought-after resources for media outlets looking to bring this news to their readers.

“This is an unprecedented time of celebration for our patients,” SAC co-chair Dr. Lynn Schuchter told the New York Times after the data was released.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and we’ve not had drugs that extended survival. That is what is so remarkable here,” Dr. Schuchter told CNN.

“This is a really huge step toward personalized care in melanoma,” Dr. Paul Chapman, a member of the MRF’s SAC and the lead investigator on the vemurafenib study, told The Washington Post.

Noting that patients receiving vemurafenib were 63 percent less likely to die than patients given chemotherapy, Dr. Antoni Ribas, a MRF Breakthrough Consortium member and MRF grant award recipient who worked on the study, told Reuters: “This is a huge difference.”

Dr. Schuchter and Dr. Ravi Amaravadi updated patients and relatives on the ASCO meeting presentations during a June 13 teleconference.  Listen to a recording of the discussion.

ASCO News Couples with Progress for Combination Trials

While the research presented at ASCO represents groundbreaking progress, we know that people battling melanoma need more progress, which is why the MRF is calling for an increased focus on combination therapies to treat advanced melanoma.  Roche and BMS announced in advance of the ASCO meeting that they would partner together to evaluate using Yervoy and vemurafenib as a combination treatment.

The MRF’s Executive Director, Tim Turnham, spoke to HealthDay about the need for increased focus on combination therapies.

“We need to be nimble about combination studies,” he said. “In the two years that we’ve known we need to study vemurafenib and ipilimumab, 18,000 people have died of melanoma in the U.S. We can’t afford to wait. We’re very excited about the positive news, but we have a long way to go.

Jedd Wolchok of MRF’s SAC told Reuters, "This trial has a very significant meaning, not just because it brings together the two most exciting drugs in melanoma in a very long time, but because the trial was planned by two big pharma companies before either drug was approved."

Added Dr. Schuchter: “This is really unprecedented to have two new approaches to treat melanoma. Once you finally understand what is driving the disease we can develop therapies that are more effective.

Melanoma in the News

Media outlets are focusing on melanoma in the wake of the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting. Additionally, the start of summer beach season has prompted another wave of articles sharing tips on the importance of UV protection.  The MRF’s executive director Tim Turnham was interviewed by Liz Szabo of USA Today about the promising new treatments that have given a new sense of hope and optimism to the melanoma community.  MRF also recently teamed up with Seventeen magazines to share safe sun tips. To read those articles and other melanoma news, please click on the links below.

MRF Enters the Blogosphere

MRF is excited to report that the MRF has entered the blogosphere.  Executive Director, Tim Turnham and other MRF leaders will be sharing thoughts and insights into melanoma news, research and issues facing the melanoma community.   If you’d like to offer an idea for a blog post or have something to share, please visit the Melanoma Research Foundation blog.

Melanoma Advocates Visit Capitol Hill

Eighteen melanoma survivors, caregivers and patients’ family members visited Capitol Hill to lobby for additional research funding and other key priorities on May 25.  The volunteers participated in the first-ever MRF advocate training and then proceeded to Capitol Hill to discuss the need for stronger tanning bed regulations with lawmakers as well as Senate and House staff members.  The delegation members hailed from nine states and the District of Columbia.  MRF hopes to make the Congressional visit an annual event.

New York, California Pushing Indoor Tanning Bans for Minors

Recent months have seen two states introduce legislation that, if signed into law, would ban indoor tanning for teens younger than 18.  Although information is widely available about the dangers of indoor tanning, recent studies have shown that despite warnings, teens continue to tan.  The American Academy of Dermatology found that 32 percent of young women have used a tanning bed within the past year, and 25 percent made weekly trips to tanning salons.  Many lawmakers fear that the only way to curb this perilous behavior is to ban indoor tanning for minors.

Check out the links below for more information on the two proposed bans in New York and California.

While the MRF applauds the progress toward passing teen tanning legislation, it is challenging to enforce bans on a state-by-state basis.  MRF is pushing for a national ban, like the one proposed in Congress last month.  To add your voice to those supporting the Tanning Bed Cancer Control Act (H.R. 1676), contact your Senators and Congressional Representative using the directory at www.contactingthecongress.org.