New Developments in Melanoma Treatment

Neoadjuvant (before-surgery) treatments for resectable melanoma

Neoadjuvant treatments are the mainstay in the care of patients with breast, colon, and other cancers, but have not traditionally been used in melanoma. This has changed now, with the publication of a report showing that patients with resectable stage III or IV BRAF-mutant melanoma benefit from treatment with the BRAF/MEK inhibitor drugs dabrafenib and trametinib prior to (and continued after) surgery. The randomized clinical trial that produced these findings was small, but the benefits were so obvious that the researchers had to close the control group—those patients who received a placebo instead of neoadjuvant treatment. 71% of the 14 patients in the trial who received BRAF/MEK inhibitors prior to surgery were disease-free after 18 months, whereas all seven patients in the control group experienced a recurrence. The trial is continuing without the control group: all patients will receive treatment prior to surgery

Adjuvant (after-surgery) treatments

Melanoma patients whose tumors are surgically removed experience a very high rate of recurrence. Until recently, adjuvant treatments to prevent recurrences were limited to the drug interferon alpha-2B and, more recently, ipilimumab (brand name Yervoy), an anti-CTLA-4 immune checkpoint drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FAD) for adjuvant treatment in 2015. Interferon treatment is extremely harsh, with many adverse effects, and is not often used anymore. Yervoy is often associated with autoimmune side effects, which are sometimes quite serious.

Enter nivolumab (Opdivo) the anti-PD-1 checkpoint drug approved by the FDA to treat metastatic melanoma and other cancers. A clinical trial showed that the recurrence-free survival (RFS) rate at 18 months with nivolumab was 66.4% compared to 52.7% for ipilimumab (Yervoy) in patients with resected stage IIIB/C or IV melanoma. This amounts to a 35% reduction in the risk of recurrence or death with the PD-1 inhibitor versus the CTLA-4 inhibitor. Not the least important factor is the much lower rate of side effects seen with nivolumab compared to ipilimumab. Nivolumab is now approved by the FDA as an adjuvant treatment after surgical resection of melanoma.

Pembrolizumab, a competing anti-PD-1 drug, also showed encouraging results in a randomized trial for stage III melanoma. The stakes in this trial were lower, since the control arm received a placebo (not ipilimumab!). Risk reduction was 43%, according to preliminary results of the trial.

For patients with BRAF-mutant stage III melanoma, adjuvant treatment with the BRAF/MEK inhibitors dabrafenib and trametinib was just recently granted a priority review by the FDA, signaling a likely approval soon. Recurrence-free 3-year survival was 58% for the combination versus 39% for placebo.

New treatments for metastatic melanoma

A Knowledge Blog post from last summer described new combination treatments for metastatic melanoma. There have been significant developments since then.

Several trials combined PD-1 blockers (pembrolizumab or nivolumab) with small molecules known as IDO inhibitors. The latter help shut down the activity of immune system cells known as regulatory T cells (T regs), which dampen the immune response triggered by anti-PD-1 drugs. Combination of pembrolizumab with the IDO inhibitor epacadostat increased the rate of responses to pembrolizumab from 32% to 56%. This is very comparable to the response rate seen with the FDA-approved combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab. However, the significant toxicities seen with addition of ipilimumab are not observed when IDO inhibitors are added. Several other competing IDO inhibitors are currently in trials with both pembrolizumab and nivolumab. Importantly, there is also hope that these drug combinations may abolish resistance to PD-1 blockers in previously treated melanoma patients.

Another promising combination has been tested in a small clinical trial of nivolumab with NKTR-214, a specifically modified form of the protein IL-2, which is a strong activator of the immune system. High-dose IL-2 is a drug that has long been approved for metastatic melanoma but is rarely used because of the extremely serious adverse effects. NKTR-214 is a modified (PEGylated) IL-2 that has much reduced side effects, and does not activate inhibitory T regs. Clinical trial results have been released for 11 melanoma patients treated with the combination. Of the patients enrolled, 73% have experienced objective responses, which is obviously much higher than what is seen with nivolumab alone. This trial is now enrolling patients who have or have not already been treated with immune drugs.

Patients who were treated with anti-PD-1 drugs and experience progression may consider enrolling in trials that add relatlimab (an anti-LAG3 immune drug) to nivolumab. In a trial that enrolled heavily pretreated patients who failed on previous treatment with anti-PD-1 drugs, the rate of response was 11.5%, but many more patients (38%) have achieved stable disease. The presence of LAG3 protein (but not PD-L1 protein) in the tumors was predictive of response.

There are other new drugs to watch. TLR9 agonists (activators) have shown early promising results in melanoma. TLR is a group of receptors that are strongly involved in innate immunity. A recent publication showed that intratumoral injection of a TLR9 activator with an antibody to OX40 (a protein on T cells) has extraordinary activity in a mouse cancer model. Trials that combine anti-OX40 and TLR9 agonists are forthcoming. However, two TLR9 agonists, SD-101 and IMO-2125, have shown very promising results in combination with anti-PD-1 or anti-CTLA4 drugs.

The other drug with early promise is ImmunoPulse IL-12 (pIL-12). In combination with pembrolizumab, it induced responses in 43% of patients who had not been previously treated with immune drugs. The important point is that patients in this trial were specifically selected to have a tumor profile that is associated with lack of response to pembrolizumab. pIL-12 is injected into tumors, so this intervention is appropriate for patients who have injectable tumors.

New BRAF/MEK inhibitors for melanoma have emerged: encorafenib and binimetinib produced a 3-year overall survival rate that is twice as high as seen with vemurafenib, a BRAF inhibitor. The comparison is not exactly meaningful because vemurafenib is not used as a single drug in BRAF-mutant melanoma these days, but this phase III trial was initiated back in 2013, prior to the approval of other BRAF/MEK combinations. The new combination may be approved mid-2018.

The triplet combinations for BRAF-mutant melanoma should be mentioned (immune plus targeted drugs). A trial that combined dabrafenib and trametinib with pembrolizumab reported early success, with a confirmed response rate of 67% in 15 patients who received the combination.

Presurgical Targeted Therapy Delays Relapse of High-Risk Stage 3 Melanoma


“A pair of targeted therapies given before and after surgery for melanoma produced at least a six-fold increase in time to progression compared to standard-of-care surgery for patients with stage 3 disease, researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center report in Lancet Oncology. Patients who had no sign of disease at surgery after combination treatment did not progress to metastasis.

“Early results of the study comparing surgery to pre- and post-surgical treatment with the BRAF inhibitor dabrafenib and the MEK inhibitor trametinib were so strikingly positive that MD Anderson’s data safety monitoring board ordered the randomized, prospective phase II trial halted and changed to a single-arm using the combination.”

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Targetable Mutations in NSCLC: More Testing Needed!

Diagnosis of adenocarcinoma of the lung, a major subtype of non-small lung cancer (NSCLC), nowadays triggers mandatory testing of tumor tissue for alterations in four genes: EGFR, ALK, ROS1, and more recently, BRAF. If present, these alterations predict sensitivity to specific targeted drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that work better and often longer than standard chemotherapy, and are better tolerated.

However, there are many more targetable/actionable genomic alterations (also known as “drivers”) in NSCLC. This blog post will briefly discuss most of them, with the goal of promoting molecular testing for more than the four “usual suspects” mentioned above. Some patients with these alterations may benefit from FDA-approved drugs or from enrollment in clinical trials that are testing additional drugs and drug combinations. Continue reading…

Three-Drug Regimen Active in BRAF-Mutant Melanoma


“Triplet therapy for advanced, BRAF V600-mutant melanoma led to objective responses in 73% of a small group of patients enrolled in a phase I trial, according to updated results reported at the 2017 ESMO Annual Congress in Madrid.

“Ongoing follow-up in the trial showed that 11 of 15 patients responded to the combination of pembrolizumab (Keytruda), dabrafenib (Tafinlar), and trametinib (Mekinist). Seven of the 11 responding patients had not progressed after a median follow-up of 20 months. ‘Updated results of the phase I portion of the KEYNOTE-022 trial confirmed previously reported efficacy of this triplet combination,’ said Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine, surgery, and molecular and medical pharmacology at the University of California at Los Angeles. ‘The results demonstrated durability of responses. No late or unexpected toxicities occurred with longer follow-up. The randomized phase II portion of KEYNOTE-022 is ongoing.’ ”

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Neoadjuvant Dabrafenib/Trametinib Leads to High pCR Rates in Bulky Resectable Melanoma, But Recurrences Are Common


“Phase II results demonstrated that nearly half of patients with resectable stage IIIB/C BRAF V600-mutant melanoma achieved pathologic complete response (pCR) with neoadjuvant combination therapy consisting of dabrafenib (Tafinlar) and trametinib (Mekinist). Additionally, no patients experienced disease progression during the neoadjuvant treatment, said Alexander M. Menzies, MD, who presented the data at the 2017 ESMO Congress in Madrid.

” ‘Nearly 50% of our patients had a complete eradication of their melanoma at the time of surgery. Fifty percent had some remaining melanoma in the surgical specimen, but every patient had some degree of tumor shrinkage on therapy,’ said Menzies, a medical oncologist and senior research fellow at Melanoma Institute Australia in Sydney, Australia. ‘These are patients who otherwise would just have surgery and then have observation. And, these are patients who are at very high risk, probably the highest risk of recurrence without further therapy.’ ”

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Melanoma News at ASCO 2017: Combination Treatments

There are many hopes that combining immune checkpoint inhibitor drugs, or combining them with drugs of other types (immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or chemotherapy) is the future of treatment for many kinds of cancer. Literally hundreds of clinical trials are actively exploring these combinations, and melanoma is the cancer for which trials of this type abound. Last month, the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago featured just a few presentations in this area, apparently because it is too early to report results from the many ongoing trials with drug combinations. Continue reading…

Targeted BRAF/MEK Inhibitor Combination Achieves Long-Term Survival in Melanoma


“More than one-fourth of patients with advanced BRAF V600-mutant melanoma remained alive at 5 years after treatment with the combination of dabrafenib (Tafinlar) and trametinib (Mekinist), long-term follow-up from a randomized trial showed.

“In the subgroup of patients with normal baseline lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) and fewer than 3 organ sites with metastases, half remained at alive at 5 years. No new safety signals emerged during long-term follow-up, as reported at the 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting in Chicago.”

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FDA Approves Tafinlar Plus Mekinist for BRAF V600E–Mutant Non–Small Cell Lung Cancer


“The FDA approved use of dabrafenib in combination with trametinib for treatment of patients with metastatic non–small cell lung cancer whose tumors harbor BRAF V600E mutations, according to the agents’ manufacturer.

“The combination of dabrafenib (Tafinlar, Novartis) — a BRAF inhibitor — and trametinib (Mekinist, Novartis), a MEK1/2 inhibitor — is the first targeted treatment approved in the United States specifically for patients with BRAF V600E–positive metastatic NSCLC.”

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Metastatic Melanoma: Not Quite Curable…But Getting There

By 2050, the number of deaths due to malignant melanoma in the U.S. could be three times lower than peak levels reached before 1960. Researchers presented the data behind this prediction at the 2017 European Cancer Congress in January.

It is unclear how much of this anticipated decline in deaths can be attributed to the availability of new, effective treatments. However, it is obvious that much-increased awareness of sunlight exposure as the single factor most responsible for the development of skin melanoma has contributed to lower incidence of the disease.

In any case, the armament of treatments available for metastatic melanoma is currently such that this diagnosis has transformed from being almost universally fatal (even just a few years ago) into a being largely treatable. Since 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved eight new drugs for melanoma. Continue reading…