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Pill could help skin cancer fight

A new "smart" pill hailed as a breakthrough could extend the lives of people with the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Malignant melanoma kills more than 2,000 people in the UK each year, and more than 11,000 people annually develop the disease.

Now, a new pill could offer patients targeted therapy when their disease has spread around the body.

It works by acting on a faulty gene, BRAF, which is found in half of terminally ill patients whose cancer has spread to other organs.

Compared to standard chemotherapy, 84% of patients given vemurafenib pills twice a day were still alive six months later compared with 64% on standard chemotherapy.

Vemurafenib also reduced the risk of the disease worsening by 74% compared to chemotherapy. And the response rate - patients whose tumours got smaller - was almost nine times higher in the pill treatment group (48.4%) compared with those on chemotherapy (5.5%).

The results were so impressive, British experts running the trial stopped it early so they could switch all patients in the chemotherapy group onto the new drug. Vemurafenib - part of a growing army of personalised treatments - works by interfering with the gene and stopping the signal that causes melanomas to grow uncontrollably.

Blocking the BRAF gene can lead to cancer cells dying and tumour shrinking. Experts are also conducting research to find out whether vemurafenib could be used for other cancers, including ovarian, thyroid and bowel cancer.

Professor Richard Marais, whose work at the Institute of Cancer Research demonstrated the importance of BRAF in melanoma, said: "This is the biggest breakthrough in melanoma treatment in more than 30 years. The results demonstrate for the first time that a targeted therapy can work in melanoma and will change our approach to treating this disease. It is an enormous advance in the field."

Roche, the firm behind the drug, has now submitted data to European and US regulator to apply for a licence.

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