Despite promising results from small trials, a large clinical trial found that combining sorafenib with chemotherapy was no better than chemotherapy alone for melanoma patients. Sorafenib is FDA-approved for kidney and liver cancer that targets tumors by inhibiting the new blood vessels that help them grow and spread. However, this Journal of Clinical Oncology study also showed that the carboplatin/paclitaxel chemotherapy was surprisingly effective. This chemotherapy combination is now listed as a standard melanoma treatment by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines.
The impressive, but still short-term, benefits of vemurafenib for melanoma patients may not justify the hefty cost to a Massachusetts Medicaid program, according to an analysis presented at an American Society of Health-System Pharmacists meeting. Vemurafenib targets the most common mutation of BRAF, which is one of the genes that is most often abnormal in melanomas. The analysis noted that vemurafenib boosted 6-month survival rates over those of the conventional chemotherapy drug dacarbazine (84% and 64%, respectively). However, vemurafenib is also more expensive than dacarbazine, with relative per patient costs estimated at $9,995 and $1,811 per month, respectively.
Giving melanoma patients a break from vemurafenib could make this treatment more effective. Research in Nature shows that vemurafenib-resistant tumors keep growing during treatment because they produce high levels of mutated BRAF proteins, which are involved in cell division. Moreover, these tumors actually depend on the drug to grow. In contrast, an on-and-off treatment schedule can help keep melanomas from becoming resistant to vemurafenib in mice.
A British Medical Journal report questions an invasive, expensive standard practice for melanoma patients in the U.S. Called sentinel node biopsy, the approach involves testing lymph nodes near tumors for cancer cells and removing nodes that test positive. The report cites a 2006 study showing that sentinel node biopsy did not increase 5-year survival rates and calls for further analysis of the practice’s effectiveness. Sentinel node biopsies are not standard in the UK.
Based on current data, researchers have developed a new treatment guide for melanomas with the most common mutations (BRAF V600). While these melanomas can be targeted with vemurafenib and dabrafenib, challenges remain. Not all tumors respond, some become resistant, and side effects can include another type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Other treatment options include trametinib, which targets a protein called MEK, as well as immunotherapies such as high-dose interleukin 2 and ipilimumab, both of which can control tumors completely.
A JAMA Surgery study clarified when melanoma is likely to return in people determined to be cancer-free by sentinel lymph node biopsy. The researchers found that melanoma recurred in 16% of 515 such patients and that 4% of them had tumors in the lymph nodes that had been tested. Recurrence was more likely when the initial tumors were on the head or neck and were deeper (2.7 vs. 1.8 mm). Recurrence was less likely in women and in people who were younger when first diagnosed.
A JAMA Dermatology study shows the dangers of using smartphone apps to self-diagnose melanomas. The researchers compared diagnoses of 60 melanomas and 128 benign lesions by a board-certified dermatopathologist to those of four apps. Three of the apps incorrectly said that 30% or more of the melanomas were harmless. The fourth app, which sent images to board-certified dermatologists, was better, but still misdiagnosed one of the melanomas as benign. These apps are not subject to regulatory oversight.