Roche's vemurafenib plays a starring role at ASCO

Vemurafenib, the experimental melanoma drug advanced by Plexxikon and now spearheaded by Roche, emerged as the clear star of ASCO over the weekend. Cancer experts were cheered by the news that 84 percent of late-stage patients in one trial were still alive after six months, compared to the 64 percent survival rate in the group taking a standard chemo treatment.

Put another way, the risk of dying among patients taking vemurafenib was reduced by 63 percent. And the risk of progression was reduced by 74 percent after three months of treatment. Memorial Sloan-Kettering's Dr. Paul Chapman noted that the data indicated an "unprecedented level of difference" for advanced melanoma patients, who have typically been given about eight months to live at that stage.

The data also underscores the jaw-dropping results that Plexxikon had gathered on the drug--which targets a gene mutation found in half of all patients--before signing off on a licensing pact with Roche and agreeing to a $935 million buyout by Daiichi Sankyo. And they leave the developers on a straight, open path to a likely regulatory approval.

Bristol-Myers Squibb also seized the spotlight at ASCO with new data on Yervoy (ipilimumab), demonstrating that melanoma patients taking the drug experienced median survival times of 11.2 months compared to the 9.1 month median survival time registered in the chemotherapy arm of the study.

"The field of metastatic melanoma treatment is moving faster these last two years than in all the past several decades," Antoni Ribas, a UCLA investigator who has worked on the vemurafenib program, tells Bloomberg.

Overall, both drugs may only provide a marginal average increase in survival time for patients. But the experts note that these therapeutics represent real progress for patients who faced bleak prospects once the disease metastasized. And as more drugs are developed, a new treatment regimen could go much farther in bending the curve of survival times for patients.

- read the story from the New York Times
- here's the Reuters story
- check out the Bloomberg report