Molecularly targeted cancer drugs are drugs that work against a very unique chemical pathway that cancer cells require for their survival and growth. The drugs dabrafenib (Tafinlar) and vemurafenib (Zelboraf) target overactivated cell proteins caused by mutations in the BRAF gene that occur in about half of melanomas arising in the skin.
Drugs that block the BRAF protein’s function shrink tumors in nearly all patients whose melanoma carries this mutation. BRAF inhibitors can also relieve symptoms and lengthen lifespan. Another protein in the same chemical pathway as BRAF, called MEK, can be blocked by the drug trametinib (Mekinist).
Trametinib and dabrafenib can be given together, resulting in longer control of melanoma and reduction of some side effects, particularly those involving the skin. Researchers are testing this combination for its ability to prevent BRAF-mutant melanoma from relapsing after surgery in patients at high risk due to positive lymph nodes (findings of cancer in their lymph nodes), and they are studying the safety of giving these drugs for fairly long periods.
While these molecularly targeted drugs are not immunotherapies, some of them can enhance the immune system’s control of a tumor. However, because of potentially severe side effects, it is essential to test combinations of targeted drugs and immunotherapies carefully in clinical trials to find the best and safest doses and schedules, which may also depend on certain patient characteristics.
To learn more about clinical studies for melanoma at SCCA, be sure to ask your doctor about melanoma studies that are recruiting patients.