Treatment options for advanced melanoma when tumors have spread from the skin throughout the body are slim at best.
"The last time a drug was approved for advanced melanoma was over a decade ago, and 85 percent of people who take that drug get no benefit at all," said Dr. Tim Turnham, Melanoma Research Foundation.
Now scientists are reporting early success with an experimental drug that actually shrank melanoma tumors and in at least a few cases got rid of them completely.
"Having a new drug that has a significant impact for patients is revolutionizing the field," said Dr. Turnham.
The drug, called PLX 40-32, targets a genetic mutation called B-RAF. B-RAF is only found in about half of melanoma patients. But for those B-RAF patients in this study -- a majority - more than 80 percent - responded to the drug.
"Now when someone walks in door with a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma, we want to know immediately whether or not their tumor bears a B-RAF mutation," said Dr. Keith Flaherty - Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.
Dr. Flaherty is a leader of this research. He says that while the drug appears to be quite effective early in treatment, the cancer often returns within a year, sparking additional research to combine PLX 40-32 with other drugs.
"We have further gains to make even in this population, but it's certainly a bigger leap than we've had at any time previous," said Dr. Flaherty.
Still, scientists say it'll take many more "big leaps" to come up with a cure.
Roche Pharmaceuticals licensed the drug, which is currently in a phase III trial. If that proves successful, Roche will go for FDA approval.