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Study creates buzz for experimental cancer drug

CHICAGO - Researchers have scored the first big win against melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. An experimental drug significantly improved survival in a major study of people with very advanced disease.

The results, reported yesterday at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual conference in Chicago, left doctors elated.

"We have not had any therapy that has prolonged survival" until now, said Dr. Lynn Schuchter of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a skin cancer specialist with no role in the new study or ties to the drug's maker.

The drug, ipilimumab, works by helping the immune system fight tumors. The federal Food and Drug Administration has pledged a quick review, and doctors think the drug could be available by the end of this year.

The study involved 676 people around the world with advanced, inoperable melanoma who had already tried other treatments. They were given one of three treatments: ipilimumab by itself, with another immune-stimulating treatment, or the immune-stimulating treatment alone. After two years, 24 percent of those given the drug alone or in combination were alive, versus 14 percent of those given just the immune-stimulating treatment.

Average survival was 10 months with ipilimumab versus just over six months for the others, said one of the study's leaders, Dr. Steven O'Day of the Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Los Angeles.

The study was funded by Bristol-Myers and Medarex Inc., which codeveloped the drug and was bought by Bristol-Myers last year. Results also were published online by the New England Journal of Medicine. - AP

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