Genetic Testing Beneficial in Melanoma Treatment, UPCI Study Shows

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Genetic screening of cancer can help doctors customize  treatments so that patients with melanoma have the best chance of beating it, according to the results of a clinical trial by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. 

The trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was presented recently at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2014. It showed that the cancer immune therapy drug ipilimumab (Yervoy) appears most likely to prevent recurrence in patients whose cancer shows high expression of immune-related genes.

“We’ve reached a point in the treatment of melanoma—and cancer in general—where we’re making major improvements in the outcomes of patients through personalized medicine,” said Lead Iinvestigator Ahmad Tarhini, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Translational Science in the Department of Medicine and Clinical and Translational Science Institute, at the University of Pittsburgh. “Anticancer therapy can be associated with significant side effects and economic costs. Therefore, we have a major interest in the development of tests that may allow us to predict which treatment regimen is most likely to help certain patients, while sparing others the unwanted side effects and cost of medications that are unlikely to work.”  

Study Details

Before and after ipilimumab treatment, Dr. Tarhini and his colleagues obtained tumor biopsies used to run genetic tests on the tumors of 32 patients with advanced, stage III melanoma who were treated by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.  All patients were given standard-of-care surgery, which included complete surgical removal of an advanced tumor. Tumor specimens were obtained at baseline and at the time of definitive surgery.

Patients with tumors that had higher levels of expression of a group of immune-related genes, either before or soon after treatment with ipilimumab, had 63% lower risk of cancer recurrence after surgery.

“By validating these findings in a large national trial that also will allow us to investigate other significant biomarker data, we’ll seek to develop ‘biomarker signatures’ that doctors can use to customize melanoma treatment plans. The ultimate goals of therapy are to best treat the cancer in an individualized approach, while avoiding the unnecessary exposure of patients to severe side effects,” said Dr. Tarhini.

Additional researchers on this study are Yan Lin, PhD, Hui-Min Lin, MS, Cindy Sander, BS,  William A. La Framboise, PhD, and John M. Kirkwood, MD, all of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

This research was supported by NIH award P50CA121973 and Bristol-Myers Squibb. ■