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New Drug Uses Herpes Virus to Fight Skin Cancer

November 07, 2015

A new approach that uses a modified version of the herpes virus to treat skin cancer could offer more hope for people with advanced melanoma.

Nearly 74,000 Americans will be diagnosed this year with melanoma, the most fatal form of skin cancer. The FDA recently approved the use of Imlygic, a genetically modified herpes virus therapy, to treat melanoma lesions that cannot be surgically removed. The therapy is injected directly into skin lesions, where it causes cancer cells to rupture and die. Imlygic is a first-of-its-kind melanoma treatment and marks the first time the FDA has approved this type of therapy.

The FDA’s approval comes after pharmaceutical company Amgen conducted a study of this treatment that involved 436 people with advanced melanoma that could not be surgically removed. Participants received injections of Imlygic for at least six months or until there were no more injectable lesions. The size of skin and lymph node lesions decreased in 16.3 percent of study participants for at least six months compared to only 2.1 percent of patients who received a different therapy.

Though tumors disappeared in nearly one-fifth of patients in the study, it’s important to mention that this therapy isn’t a cure-all for advanced melanoma. It hasn’t been shown to improve overall survival rates or affect advanced melanoma that has spread to other vital organs. Imlygic also has several side effects, such as flu-like symptoms, fatigue, fever and nausea. Since the treatment uses a form of the herpes virus, it’s also possible that anyone who uses it may get a herpes infection. For that reason, this treatment isn’t recommended if you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system.

Imlygic may improve quality of life for people with melanoma, but it isn’t the only good news we’ve had lately for melanoma treatment. Last month, the FDA also approved the expanded use of Yervoy (ipilimumab) for people with stage III melanoma. The expanded use is for those who have a high risk of melanoma returning after surgery. allows the body’s immune system to attack and kill cancer cells. The FDA’s recent approval comes after studies showed that cancer returned an average of 26 months after surgery in 49 percent of study participants who took Yervoy, compared to a 17-month recurrence in participants who took a placebo.

Though there isn’t any research on long-term survivorship with Yervoy’s expanded use, the results are encouraging. With these recent FDA approvals, we’re making strides in the treatment of both early and late-stage melanoma. That’s good news for patients and their families. Let’s keep going until we make sure thousands of people no longer have to suffer from this terrible disease.