Doctors are hailing the results of a new study that shows more patients with advanced melanoma lived longer and had fewer side effects when given a new drug than those on the standard treatment.
More than 70 per cent of patients given the newer drug, Keytruda, lived for one year, whereas only 58 per cent of those on Yervoy lived an extra year.
Associate Professor Georgina Long from the Melanoma Institute of Australia said it was a groundbreaking development for melanoma patients and all cancer patients.
“The results are world-first, where two effective immunotherapies are directly compared, and we significantly improve outcomes for patients even further,” she said.
“This really is important as this new drug works much better. To show such a large improvement is outstanding.”
Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world, with an Australian dying from the disease every six hours.
The results have just been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study, comparing two immune checkpoint inhibitors demonstrated that pembrolizumab (Yervoy) significantly prolonged progression-free and overall survival and had less frequent high-grade side effects compared with ipilimumab (Keytruda) in patients with advanced melanoma.
The drug works by boosting the patient’s own immune system so it can kill the cancer cells.
The trial showed the new drug did not work in 30 per cent of patients.
“This is not a panacea and for everyone,” Professor Long said
“We are now looking at why those patients don’t respond.”
Study results one of the biggest breakthroughs: expert
The results are one of the biggest breakthroughs in treating melanoma, according to cancer expert Professor Rick Kefford, from Macquarie University.
“It’s the most important development in treating this disease,” he said.
Patients tolerated the drug very well, with few serious side effects.
“We found those patients where there was deep shrinkage of the tumour did really well and were alive many years later,” Professor Long said.
The study was funded by the drug manufacturer Merck, Sharp and Dohme, and is likely to be used by the company to argue the drug should be listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
Eight hundred and thirty four patients took part in the study from 16 countries including Australia.
Doctors said the new drug was appropriate to use in patients with advanced melanoma, where cancer has spread or where it cannot be removed by surgery.
The tumour also needs to have an abnormal “BRAF” gene.