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The year of melanoma


CURE invited Wendy K. D. Selig, CEO of the Melanoma Research Alliance, to share her thoughts on the strides melanoma research has had this year, particularly from the news coming out of ASCO earlier this month."This clearly is the year of melanoma." These were the words of George Sledge, Jr., MD, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), in a BusinessWeek interview, following news that made headlines regarding the latest exciting research results presented at ASCO's recent annual meeting.We at the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) are obviously delighted with the reports, especially because the progress has energized the entire medical community to accelerate finding solutions to defeat this deadly disease.While much more remains to be accomplished, the word out of the ASCO conference regarding metastatic melanoma is that patients and all those at risk for this deadly disease are now witnessing the launch of an era of unprecedented therapeutic opportunities. Until recently, patients with inoperable metastatic melanoma had very few treatment options. In fact, patients with disseminated stage 4 melanoma have a median life expectancy of less than one year.Earlier this year, the immunotherapeutic ipilimumab (now known as Yervoy), based on the first demonstration of improved survival in a randomized melanoma trial, received FDA approval. The advances continued with a report that vemurafenib, a so-called BRAF inhibitor that works by a completely different mechanism than ipilumumab, also confers improved overall survival in patients with advanced metastatic melanoma compared to standard chemotherapy. Vemurafenib and ipilimumab represent two major kinds of drugs with activity against melanoma (signaling pathway inhibitors that target the tumor directly and immune-modulating drugs that work indirectly, respectively) for which there is now a growing, rich pipeline of clinical development.These are significant milestones, providing platforms for further progress. Ongoing research is building upon these results by identifying mechanisms of drug resistance and biomarkers of treatment response, as well as investigating the value of combinatorial therapies. As the largest private funder of melanoma research, MRA is dedicated to remaining at the forefront of these, and other, critical avenues of research. We need to pursue new avenues because, despite the exciting advances that are benefiting patients today, not everyone responds to the new treatments, and too many people are seeing their cancers eventually return.Combination treatment strategies supported by strong preclinical data are next in line and will benefit from recently updated FDA regulatory guidance in this area that will facilitate their development. Combination therapies will be critical for providing significant benefit to patients. This is one reason MRA applauds Genentech/Roche, makers of vemurafenib, and Bristol-Myers Squibb, makers of ipilimumab, for entering into an agreement to test these compounds in combination. It is also noteworthy that these advances in melanoma, which have emanated from decades of scientific groundwork, have also revealed treatment paradigms applicable not only to melanoma but to many other forms of cancer as well. Included in the $25 million to date the MRA is investing in cutting-edge translational science are projects investigating combination therapies such as BRAF inhibitors and immunotherapies as well as research to better understand the biological mechanisms of BRAF inhibitor resistance. The recent findings and enthusiasm among researchers in the field motivate all of us at MRA and throughout the melanoma research community to redouble our efforts, so that, collaborating with all stakeholders, one day no one will have to suffer or die from melanoma.

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