Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, successfully completed on Monday the third stage of human trials which proved that the company’s theories about how to slow a deadly form of skin cancer, called melanoma, were correct. It also established the efficacy of their combination therapy which uses two different types of drugs to disable and then kill many of the melanoma cells inside of the of patient’s body. Both of the drugs, Zelboraf (which Roche developed independently) and Cobimetinib (which it developed together with another company), were found to work better together than alone.
These drugs work by first providing a protein which inhibits the activation of melanoma’s signature MEK protein, then unleashing the contents of Zelboraf, which is a compound specifically designed to kill only melanoma cells with a specific mutation. Thus the treatment can stop the disease from spreading and also expressing itself, leading to a higher quality of life for individuals who would otherwise be suffering in a hospice ward somewhere.
While the medical community has been playing with the idea of treating the disease with MEK disruptors, they were having significant amounts of trouble maintaining sufficient levels of the proteins inside the patient. MEK-only therapies also resulted in side effects which varied from more commonplace symptoms like diarrhea, to somewhat dangerous side effects like quick and significant drops in leukocyte (white blood cell) counts within the patient’s bloodstream. It seems that Roche along with its industry partners found the way around that problem, and successfully proved their therapy to be more effective than a placebo.
Roche’s partner, Genentech, released its own statement in which it helped to contextualize the seemingly shocked tone of Roche’s own press release. While Genentech’s compound was based on numerous other MEK inhibitors that have been proven to slow the progress of melanoma cells, Zelboraf’s efficacy was very theoretical and not all that safe to deploy in a clinical setting without complete knowledge of the patient. In fact, unless the melanoma that Zelboraf is after contains a mutation (called the BRAF V600 mutation), then it will not attempt to destroy any mutation.
In fact, some studies have indicated that it will actively help the melanoma grow and produce more normal BRAF. Thus Genentech, even in their very happy and successful-sounding press release, urged patients who suspect they have cancer of the skin and are interested in combination therapy to consult with their doctors before starting the treatment, stating in no uncertain terms that if their melanoma was not the right kind, then Zelboraf would give them another kind of skin cancer on top of it instead of slowing the progression of their already existing illness.
Potential liabilities aside, these two companies have successfully proven to the entire pharmaceutical industry that combination therapies can be created and are also very effective at treating even the most deadly of cancers. Hopefully the world will soon see similar treatments for other cancerous illnesses as other companies, feeling more comfortable with the idea of investing in the therapy, will take the plunge and begin creating novel treatments.
For melanoma patients, this development could not come any sooner. Over the past couple of years more than 50,000 people have died from deadly cancer of the skin, which begins as an innocent-looking yet uneven mole that slowly grows inward, and if the patient is not successful in catching it or slowing its progress through combination therapy, then it will begin systematically destroying them. Now that this drug is on its way to the marketplace courtesy of Roche, it will help those individuals buy some time and revel in what is truly important in their lives.
By Andrew Waddell