Breakthrough melanoma treatment lies in DNA

July 29, 2011 2:58:08 PM PDT
A breakthrough in treating melanoma may lie within a patient's DNA Michael Sosnowicz, 63, never imagined that something he did when he was his children's age could possibly kill him decades later. Sosnowicz spent years in the sun at his family's marina.

"The way I looked at things was, 'you can't hurt Superman'," said Sosnowicz, a melanoma patient.

Thirty years ago, doctors removed a cancerous tumor from Sosnowicz's leg and told him he was cured.

"Last April or May, I was driving home, and I put my hand on my thigh. Right here, next to the excision spot, I felt what I thought was a lipoma - a fatty tumor," Sosnowicz added.

Dr. Lynn Schuchter is the Chief of Hematology and Oncology at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She says that the biggest breakthrough in decades may lie within a patient's DNA. Forty percent of the patients with melanoma have a broken gene called the "BRAF gene".

"What's really exciting is that there are new drugs and new inhibitors that target these genes. They can put the brakes on these rapidly-dividing cells," said Dr. Schuchter.

In some patients who have tumors with a broken BRAF gene, the inhibitors even shrink tumors by 50 percent or more.

"Three days after taking the drug, I wake up on my left-hand side, and I don't have this discomfort in my stomach. I move over to my right, and I don't have it," Sosnowicz said.

Dr. Schuchter says that while patients have had tremendous results, eventually the melanoma cells may become resistant. The next step is combining the BRAF inhibitor with other therapies to ultimately find a cure. Hope keeps Michael Sosnowicz strong - hope and his family.

Now called Vemurafenib, the BRAF inhibitor is still being tested in clinical trials. The FDA is expected to consider it for approval by the end of this year.