New treatments offer options for difficult to treat skin cancer

February 5, 2019 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
skin cancer

While many types of skin cancer can be treated successfully, especially when diagnosed early, some can be more difficult to treat. But newly approved treatments and treatments in development for several different types of skin cancer, including advanced squamous cell carcinoma, drug-resistant basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma that affects the eye mean patients have more options.

 With approximately 700,00 people in the U.S. diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma each year, it’s the second most common type of this cancer. Usually a slow-growing skin cancer, when diagnosed early, most squamous cell carcinomas can be successfully treated with surgery to remove the tumor, cryosurgery, electrosurgery, radiation, photodynamic therapy, or topical medications.

More advanced cancers and those that have spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body can be more difficult to treat. In these cases, a new treatment may help. The recently FDA-approved injectable drug cemiplimab-rwlc (brand name Libtayo) is an immune checkpoint inhibitor. That means it helps the body’s immune system attack the cancer by targeting a protein called PD-1.

This is the first drug the FDA has approved for the treatment of locally advanced and metastatic squamous cell carcinoma. In clinical trials, 47.2% of patients treated with cemiplimab-rwlc experienced the shrinkage or disappearance of their tumors and the majority had ongoing responses to the drug when the data from the trials was analyzed.

New treatments in development

Basal cell carcinoma, the most common cancer in the U.S., rarely spreads to other parts of the body. Of patients who are newly diagnosed with advanced or metastatic basal cell carcinoma, however, more than half of them have cancers that are resistant to currently approved drug treatments. Researchers at Stanford University have discovered the protein that may be the key to the tumor’s drug resistance and have been successful blocking that protein using an inhibitor previously used to treat inflammation in studies with mice and on lab-grown human tumors. Additional research is needed before clinical trials can be undertaken.

Although far less common than most types of skin cancer, uveal melanoma affects about 2,000 adults each year. With this type of cancer, tumors can develop in the iris, ciliary body, or choroid. For about half of the patients diagnosed with uveal melanoma, the cancer spreads to the liver.

There are currently only a few treatments available, but researchers at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, Jefferson Health and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, have discovered a plant compound that stopped the tumor’s growth in preliminary tests and in the future may be able to be used to develop an effective treatment for uveal cancer.

The compound comes from the Christmas berry primrose plant and has the ability to block a protein on a cell’s membrane. To date, testing on three types of lab-grown uveal melanoma cells has shown that at lower doses the compound blocked the growth of the cancer cells and caused the cells to change from cancer cell back to normal cells. At higher doses, it killed the cancer cells.

To learn more about new skin cancer treatment options and clinical trials of new treatments, talk with your doctor. A health advisor can be another resource when you face an advanced, rare, or complex cancer diagnosis.