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Promising New Treatment for Melanoma Patients

January 20, 2015

Every year, more than 76,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Here in the Sunshine State, we have a higher than average melanoma incidence rate.

Melanoma is the fifth most common type of cancer in the United States, and in recent decades, several treatments have emerged to help fight this disease. The FDA has approved more than 8 drugs for the treatment of melanoma, and it recently approved a promising new drug—Opdivo (nivolumab)—that could help improve the quality of life and extend survival rates for people with this disease.

Opdivo, which is manufactured by the company Bristol-Myers-Squibb, is administered into the veins through an IV every two weeks. It uses the body’s own immune system to attack cancer tumors. Opdivo is intended for people who have advanced melanoma and those who have a tumor that cannot be surgically removed. People with a gene mutation called BRAF V600 and had prior therapy with a BRAF inhibitor or those who had previously been treated with Yervoy, another FDA- approved immunotherapy drug, are eligible for this treatment.

The FDA granted accelerated approval for Opdivo after promising results during a clinical trial. The trial included 120 people with advanced melanoma who were assigned the drug, while 47 people were assigned to chemotherapy. The first group showed a 32 percent overall response rate to treatment—as cancer tumors decreased in size—compared to 11 percent for the group who underwent chemotherapy. More impressively are the long term durable control of disease. The positive responses to the drug continued for six months or longer in certain patients.

These results show just how far we’ve come. More than three or four years ago, nothing really worked for people who had metastatic melanoma, but Opdivo has produced durable responses that extend long-term survival for many people who may have thought they had limited treatment options.

Opdivo is the eighth new drug on the market since 2011 for treating late-stage melanoma. Drugs like Opdivo and Yervoy show the promise of cancer immunotherapy in treating this disease and other forms of cancer. Opdivo currently is being tested in people with lung and kidney cancers, as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It also is being combined with other treatments to determine how this increases the drug’s ability to fight cancer. The medical community is continuing to study new immune treatments for other cancer types, as well, which could improve the overall effectiveness of future cancer treatments.

Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center has begun prescribing Opdivo where appropriate. Most insurance and Medicare plans will cover this drug, but if you are underinsured or don’t have insurance, patient assistance programs may be available.

These new developments have increased my hope that we can develop immunotherapy treatments to which many more patients will respond. Our goal with treatment is to give you the best quality care and help you be as healthy as possible. The FDA’s approval of this new drug helps us progress in this mission—and gives renewed hope to anyone living with melanoma.