New Cancer Drugs Raise Hope of Survival

VIDEO: Dr. Richard Besser explains why recent medical breakthroughs are important.
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After melanoma had spread to his organs and fears that he would be dead in months increased, Corky Corcoran decided to try an experimental drug called Vemurafenib.

Now, Corcoran said, the drug has changed his life.

"This drug, if it continues to work as it has been working ... is fantastic," he said.

Drugs like Vemurafenib, the one Corcoran tried, are what had cancer researchers applauding today at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting in Chicago and could have the estimated 1 million cancer patients buzzing throughout the nation.

"Doctors were told they are on the edge of a new era," and that several of the latest breakthroughs could bring about the most significant changes to cancer survival, Dr. Lynn Schucter, a cancer researcher at the University of Pennsylvania said.

The drug Vemurafenib, which is being developed by Plexxikon and Roche/Genentech, is receiving much of the attention. Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society, said the drug targets genetic cell mutation, which affects about half of those with melanoma.

Melanoma patients who were given the drug were said to be alive and no longer needing chemotherapy. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer, affecting approximately 70,000 new people each year.

Latest estimates in the United States show close to 9,000 deaths from melanoma each year, but Dr. Paul Chapman with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the leader of the Vemurafenib study, said he believed the new findings bring a renewed sense of hope for one of the most deadly forms of cancer.

The Vemurafenib study involved 675 patients around the world with inoperable, advanced melanoma and the gene mutation. Researchers compared Vemurafenib with Dacarbazine, another chemotherapy drug used to treat skin cancer.

The study found that of the patients who were given the Vermurafenib pills twice a day, 84 percent were alive after six months.

"To have 84 percent of patients on Vemurafenib still alive was astounding and statistically, highly significant," Chapman said.

Doctors said Vemurafenib could be approved and on the market in six months.

Bristol-Myers Squib paid for the study and many of the researchers consult or work for the company.

Another success story announced today was Bristol-Myers Squib's melanoma fighting drug, Yervoy, which works by stimulating the body's own immune system to fight cancer.

Yervoy won Federal Drug Administration approval in March and became the first drug to show signs of success for treating metastatic melanoma. The drug was shown to increase survival rates for melanoma patients by a third.

Yervoy would cost $120,000 for a complete course of treatment, which consists of four infusions given over a three-month period, Bristol-Myers said in a statement back in March.

A day after a parade of pink, including nearly 4,000 breast cancer survivors, swarmed the nation's capital for the 22nd Komen Global Race for the Cure Saturday, researchers also announced a drug called Aromasin to aid in the prevention of breast cancer.

Aromasin, researchers said, cuts the risk of developing breast cancer by more than half with fewer side effects than two other approved drugs

"I think it provides another option for post-menopausal women at high risk for developing breast cancer," said Dr. Jennifer Litton of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Aromasin was the first test in healthy women of a new generation of hormone blocking pills called aromatase inhibitors, which are currently used to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer.

The National Cancer Institute explained that aromatase inhibitors help to block the production of estrogen, a chemical produced by the ovaries and other tissues that helps breast tumors to grow.

Studies on Vemurafenib and Aromasin will be published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.

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