Rare victory in fight against melanoma
Genetically tailored approach could slow disease progress
Patients with advanced melanoma rarely live for more than a year after their diagnosis — a prognosis that has not improved for more than 30 years. But clinical-trial results now suggest that a genetically targeted approach could slow the disease's steady march through the body, and separate research reveals why the latest drug being tested may succeed where others failed.
The drug could be the first melanoma treatment to join an elite but expanding list of cancer therapies tailored to a patient's genetic make-up (see 'Seek and destroy'). "It's spectacular," says Richard Marais, a molecular biologist at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, who was not affiliated with either study. "There's been a paradigm shift in how you would treat melanoma."
In 2002, Marais and his colleagues reported that more than 60% of patients with melanoma — cancer of the melanin-producing cells typically found in skin — carry mutations in a gene that encodes a protein called B-RAF. The mutations trigger a signalling pathway that accelerates cancerous cell growth.
Drug companies pricked up their ears at the discovery. One of them, a small biotechnology company in Berkeley, California, called Plexxikon, started fishing for compounds that would selectively block mutated B-RAF by filling the unique pocket that the genetic mutation etches into the protein's three-dimensional structure.
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