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New drug may help skin cancer patients

CHICAGO — Researchers have scored the first big win against melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. An experimental drug significantly improved survival in a major study of people with very advanced disease.

The results, reported Saturday at a cancer conference, left doctors elated.

"We have not had any therapy that has prolonged survival" until now, said Lynn Schuchter of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a skin cancer specialist with no role in the study or ties to the drug's maker.

The drug, ipilimumab, works by helping the immune system fight tumors. The federal Food and Drug Administration has pledged a quick review, and doctors think the drug could be available by the end of this year.

Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. Last year in the United States, there were about 68,720 new cases and 8,650 deaths from the disease. Worldwide, more than 50,000 people die of melanoma each year.

"The incidence is rising faster than any other cancer," said one of the study's leaders, Stephen Hodi of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. "When it spreads to vital organs, it's almost always fatal."

The study involved 676 people around the world with advanced, inoperable melanoma who had already tried other treatments — a very grim situation. They were given one of three treatments: ipilimumab by itself, with another immune-stimulating treatment, or the immune-stimulating treatment alone.

Average survival was 10 months with ipilimumab versus just over six months for the others, said one of the study's leaders, Steven O'Day of the Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Doctors hope the drug can provide more benefit if given earlier in the course of the disease and to less-sick patients.

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