Super Patient: Patient Advocates Help Susan Steel Win Admittance to Clinical Trials


Update:  We are deeply saddened to report that Susan passed away on January 13, 2016. It is a privilege to continue to share her story and keep her memory alive.

When Susan Steel first noticed the mole that derailed her life ten years ago, she was busy raising two children and running two businesses. “I just wasn’t paying attention,” she says. It wasn’t until the mole grew and started to bleed that she finally saw a doctor—and then she was hit with the news that she had melanoma and that it had spread to her lymph nodes.

“My life changed very fast,” Susan recalls. “I was told that my chances were very slim and that I should get my affairs in order.” Continue reading…


Advanced Melanoma Therapy Should Continue beyond Disease Progression

“Continued use of vemurafenib, even after disease progression, can improve survival outcomes for patients with BRAF V600-mutated advanced melanoma.

“More than half of diagnosed melanomas harbor BRAF V600 mutations, and the introduction of targeted agents such as vemurafenib (Zelboraf, Hoffmann-La Roche) and dabrafenib (Tafinlar, GlaxoSmithKline) triggered a paradigm shift in the treatment of BRAF-mutated melanoma.

“However, standard treatment practice is to discontinue use of these targeted agents upon disease progression, not unlike classic regimens such as cytotoxic chemotherapy.

“Because BRAF-mutated melanoma progresses rapidly after treatment, John Haanen, PhD, of the division of immunology at Netherlands Cancer Institute, and colleagues conducted a single-institution retrospective study to determine whether continued use of vemurafenib after disease progression could extend OS in patients with BRAF V600-mutated advanced melanoma.


Scientist Study Skin Cancer Patients Resistant to Leading Therapy

“Powerful drugs known as BRAF-inhibitors have been crucial for melanoma patients, saving lives through their ability to turn off the BRAF protein’s power to spur cancer cell growth.

“Yet they often work for only a year or less. Scientists know some of the DNA mutations that cause the drug resistance, but scientists have not been able to determine the underlying cause of the resistance in as many as a third of these patients. As a result, identifying genomic-based follow-up therapies for these patients has been a challenge.

“Researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center may have found a way to more accurately predict which patients will likely respond to genomic-based follow-up therapies, by looking at unique ‘protein patterns’ in melanoma patients.

” ‘There are patients whose DNA does not reveal how their melanomas became resistant to BRAF inhibitors,’ said Lawrence Kwong, Ph.D., instructor in Genomic Medicine at MD Anderson. ‘So we looked at patterns of changes in 150 proteins which can give clues to the causes of resistance, even when DNA sequencing data is uninformative.’ “


Good Results for Tafinlar in BRAF V600E Metastatic Melanoma

The gist: An ongoing clinical trial has shown good results for certain metastatic melanoma patients treated with the drug dabrafenib (Tafinlar). Patients in the trial have tumors with “BRAF V600E” mutations. The researchers report that 45% of patients treated with Tafinlar are still alive at two years.

“GSK today announced updated results for Tafinlar® (dabrafenib) from a planned analysis of the phase III BREAK-3 study in 250 patients with BRAF V600E mutant metastatic melanoma. These results, which include new survival data, showed 45 per cent of patients treated with dabrafenib were still alive at two years.1 The data were presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) 2014 Congress in Madrid.

“Analysis of the study’s primary endpoint, progression free survival (PFS), was reported in 2012.2 Today’s results relate to a secondary endpoint from this study, with a final analysis of the overall survival (OS) endpoint expected in 2016.

“45 per cent of patients treated with dabrafenib only, were alive at two years compared to 32 per cent of patients who began treatment with dacarbazine (DTIC).  59 per cent of patients on DTIC treatment whose disease progressed subsequently received dabrafenib treatment and are included in the DTIC control arm results. While allowing this treatment cross over means patients in the control arm get the potential benefit of an active experimental drug, this can impact the comparative study findings as patients who received both medicines are included in the DTIC arm results. At the planned two-year follow up, the study showed a median OS of 20.0 months for the dabrafenib arm (95% CI 16.8-24.4) compared to 15.6 months for the DTIC arm (95% CI 12.7-21.2) [hazard ratio (HR) 0.77 (95% CI 0.52-1.13) – not statistically significant].

“ ‘We are encouraged by the 45 per cent survival rate with dabrafenib at two years,’ said Dr. Paolo Paoletti, President of Oncology, GSK. ‘Treatments for melanoma have come a long way in recent years and we’re now seeing the benefits precision medicines can bring to the right patients.’ ”


Nivolumab Better than Chemotherapy in Untreated Melanoma

The gist: People with advanced melanoma who have not yet been treated might benefit from the drug nivolumab (Opdivo). In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Opdivo for people who had tried other treatments unsuccessfully. Now, a new clinical trial shows that patients without prior treatment survive longer on Opdivo than chemotherapy.

“The PD-1 inhibitor nivolumab significantly increased overall survival compared with chemotherapy in patients with previously untreated metastatic melanoma without a BRAF mutation. In addition, the drug more than doubled the progression-free survival among these patients.

“ ‘The risk of death decreased by 58% with nivolumab, as compared with dacarbazine, among previously untreated patients with advanced melanoma,’ wrote study author Caroline Robert, MD, PhD, of INSERM Unité 981, Gustave Roussy, and colleagues. ‘The survival benefit was consistent across all the prespecified subgroups, including patients with poor prognostic factors.’

“The results of the phase III double-blind study were published in the January 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.”


Moffitt Researchers Discover Mechanism Leading to Drug Resistance, Metastasis in Melanoma Patients

The gist: New research suggests that some melanoma patients might benefit from a treatment schedule that alternates BRAF inhibitor drugs with MEK inhibitor drugs. The scientists hypothesize that this schedule could help prevent drug resistance and metastasis. The researchers set out to figure out why patients who receive BRAF inhibitors develop more metastases than patients on standard chemotherapy. They found that unusually high activity of a protein called EphA2 on cancer cells may be the culprit. Taking away BRAF inhibitors seemed to lower the aggressiveness of these cells. So, periodically taking away BRAF inhibitors from patients might theoretically help stave off resistance and metastasis.

Moffitt Cancer Center researchers have discovered a mechanism that leads to resistance to targeted therapy in melanoma patients and are investigating strategies to counteract it. Targeted biological therapy can reduce toxicity and improve outcomes for many cancer patients, when compared to the adverse effects of standard chemotherapeutic drugs.  However, patients often develop resistance to these targeted therapies, resulting in more aggressive cells that can spread to other sites or cause regrowth of primary tumors.

“B-Raf is a protein that is frequently mutated in human cancers, leading to increased tumor cell growth, survival and migration.  Drugs that target B-Raf or another protein in the same network called MEK have proved effective in clinical trials. Several B-Raf and MEK inhibitors have been approved with the combination of a B-Raf and a MEK inhibitor being the current standard of care for patients with B-Raf mutant melanoma. However over time many patients become resistant to B-Raf and B-Raf/MEK inhibitor therapy.

“Moffitt researchers found that patients who are on B-Raf inhibitor drugs develop more new metastases than patients who are on standard chemotherapy. The researchers wanted to determine how this acquired resistance develops in order to devise better treatment options for patients. They found that melanoma cells that are resistant to B-Raf inhibitors tend to be more aggressive and invasive, thereby allowing the tumor to spread to a new organ site.  They used a large screening approach and discovered that this resistance and aggressive behavior was due to high activity of a cell surface protein called EphA2, which is also found on glioblastoma stem cells.”


Drug Combo Cuts Death by One-Third in Metastatic Melanoma with BRAF V600E or V600K Mutations

The gist: Certain metastatic melanoma patients who have not yet been treated may do better if they take the drugs dabrafenib and trametinib than if they take vemurafenib. This was true for patients who had BRAF V600E or V600K mutations in their tumors. The patients participated in a clinical trial to compare the two treatment approaches.

“Patients with previously untreated BRAF V600E or V600K metastatic melanoma had a significant improvement in overall survival when treated with a combination of a BRAF inhibitor and a MEK inhibitor compared with treatment with a BRAF inhibitor alone, according to the results of a study published in the January 1 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

“In fact, patients treated with dabrafenib and trametinib had a 31% relative risk reduction for death compared with patients assigned monotherapy with the BRAF inhibitor vemurafenib, with no significant increase in toxicity.

“ ‘Together with the previously reported phase II and phase III trials of dabrafenib plus trametinib, as compared with dabrafenib monotherapy, these data provide clear evidence for the benefit of this combination therapy over BRAF monotherapy in prolonging survival,’ wrote study author Caroline Robert, MD, PhD, Gustave Roussy and INSERM Unité 981, Villejuif-Paris Sud, and colleagues.”


FDA Approves Opdivo for Advanced Melanoma

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today granted accelerated approval to Opdivo (nivolumab), a new treatment for patients with unresectable (cannot be removed by surgery) or metastatic (advanced) melanoma who no longer respond to other drugs.

“Melanoma is the fifth most common type of cancer in the United States. It forms in the body’s melanocyte cells, which develop the skin’s pigment. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 76,100 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma and 9,710 will die from the disease this year.

“Opdivo works by inhibiting the PD-1 protein on cells, which blocks the body’s immune system from attacking melanoma tumors. Opdivo is intended for patients who have been previously treated with ipilimumab and, for melanoma patients whose tumors express a gene mutation called BRAF V600, for use after treatment with ipilimumab and a BRAF inhibitor.”


New Drug Combo Might Soon Be an Option for People with Advanced Melanoma with BRAF V600 Mutation

The gist: A combination of the drugs cobimetinib and vemurafenib (aka Zelboraf) might soon become a new treatment option for U.S. patients with advanced melanoma whose tumors have a V600 mutation in the BRAF gene. The drug company Genentech submitted a New Drug Application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking for FDA approval of the combo. In a clinical trial, Genentech researchers found that patients who take cobimetinib along with vemurafenib do better than patients who take vemurafenib alone. Both drugs are targeted therapies.

“Genentech, a member of the Roche Group (SIX: RO, ROG; OTCQX: RHHBY), today announced the company has submitted a New Drug Application (NDA) for cobimetinib to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment, in combination with Zelboraf® (vemurafenib), for people with BRAF V600 mutation-positive advanced melanoma. The submission is based on results of the coBRIM Phase III study, which showed people who received the MEK inhibitor cobimetinib plus Zelboraf lived significantly longer without their disease worsening or death (progression-free survival; PFS) compared to Zelboraf alone.

” ‘In the past several years we have made significant progress in treating advanced melanoma, but it remains a serious and difficult to treat cancer that affects more people each year,’ said Sandra Horning, M.D., chief medical officer and head of Global Product Development. ‘We look forward to working with the FDA as they review the NDA and hope the combination of cobimetinib and Zelboraf will soon become a new option for people with BRAF mutation-positive advanced melanoma.’

“In the coBRIM study, cobimetinib and Zelboraf reduced the risk of disease worsening or death by half (hazard ratio [HR]=0.51, 95 percent confidence interval [CI] 0.39-0.68; p<0.0001), with a median PFS of 9.9 months for cobimetinib plus Zelboraf compared to 6.2 months with Zelboraf alone. The safety profile was consistent with a previous study of the combination. The most common Grade 3 or higher adverse events in the combination arm included liver lab abnormalities, elevated creatine phosphokinase (CPK, an enzyme released by muscles) and diarrhea. The most common adverse events seen in the combination arm included diarrhea, nausea, rash, photosensitivity and lab abnormalities. The most common Grade 3 or higher adverse events in the combination arm included liver lab abnormalities, elevated creatine phosphokinase (CPK, an enzyme released by muscles) and diarrhea.”