Basal cell carcinoma, melanoma, and squamous cell carcinoma are the three main types of skin cancer. Melanoma is less common, but dangerous and aggressive.
Skin cancer rates are rising in the United States. In 2014 the National Cancer Institute estimates that:
- There will be 76,100 reported new cases of melanoma as well as 9,710 deaths.
- There will be 2 million reported new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer with less than 1,000 deaths.
In our cells is where cancer starts. When cells are damaged or grow old, they usually die and we have new cells that replace them. In the case of cancer, new cells will grow when they aren’t needed and damaged or old cells don’t die when they should die which forms a tumor (mass of tissue). Skin cancer is able to spread throughout the body and invade otherwise healthy tissues.
There are treatments to remove skin cancer, but this depends upon the type of cancer and the stage that it’s in. The FDA had only 5 drugs approved before 2011 for the treatment of melanoma.
Most of these drugs shrank the tumors and were standard chemotherapy drugs, but they weren’t very effective with only a positive result in 15% of patients according to FDA oncologist Patricia Keegan, M.D. She stated that many people who took the drugs didn’t get a lot of benefit from them.
The FDA has approved one treatment combination and two melanoma drugs since 2011. Mekinist (trametinib) in combination with Tafinlar shrank tumors in clinical studies for about half of patients. The other drugs were Tafinlar (dabrafenib, and Zelboraf (vemurafenib). Patients using the new drug Yervoy (ipilimumab) and Zelboraf patients live longer using these drugs than if they got just chemotherapy according to Keegan.
New Treatments for Skin Cancer
One new class of immune therapy drugs that patients with melanoma are using is Yervoy. These patients have melanoma which can’t be removed by surgery or limited to certain gene mutations. The cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen (CTLA-4) molecule is blocked by the drug. It helps the body, target, recognize, and attack cells which have melanoma tumors. For over 100 years according to Keegan, scientists have been trying to gain this ability.
Keegan says that there has been a lot of experience with tumor vaccines and the hope was that they would attack the foreign bacteria, but most of these had been unsuccessful until now.
The drug Yervoy doesn’t attack the tumor directly. The drug helps the white blood cells of the body recognize tumor cells so they can be rejected by the body.
Mekinist, Tafinlar, and Zelboraf, are personalized drugs that treat patients with melanoma tumors with the BRAF V600E gene mutation. The drugs work to keep tumors from growing by blocking the BRAF gene which has been mutated.
Erivedge (vismodegib) is the first FDA drug approved to treat metastic basal cell carcinoma. This is a serious cancer for a small percentage of the population. Tumors on the face, nose, eyelid, and head are difficult to cut out for doctors or impossible and this drug helps treat these tumors. A rare form of skin cancer called Gorlin syndrome can impact many parts of the body and these individuals are vulnerable because their cancer can spread or return so this drugs helps.