Ileana Alfaro, TheCostaRicaNews.com

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a breakthrough melanoma treatment called Yervoy (ipilimumab) on March 25. This is the first melanoma drug to receive FDA approval in 13 years, and it is also the first therapy proven to extend overall survival and improve the quality of life for advanced stage melanoma patients and those with metastasis.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. It can usually be cured with surgery alone in the early stages of the disease, but once it spreads (metastasizes) throughout the body, treatment options are limited. After decades of research, however, this new therapy is providing hope.

Yervoy offers patients a 2-year survival advantage, with a smaller percentage of patients being virtually cured.

Yervoy (ipilimumab) is a monoclonal antibody, an immune protein that binds to a molecule called CTLA-4 and inhibits it from functioning. CTLA-4 is a kind of brake on the immune system which keeps it from overfunctioning and thus attacking itself; by blocking it, Ipilimumab kicks the immune system into higher gear so that it can identify, attack and eliminate melanoma cells.

Side effects of Yervoy are related primarily to the overactivation of the immune system, resulting in skin rash, itching and diarrhea. In fact, this drug may be more effective in patients who develop these side effects.

The findings will be submitted to the American Society of Clinical Oncology for potential presentation at its annual meeting in June. The medical community is enthusiastic about the approval of this new treatment because it represents a giant step towards the goal of curing this devastating disease.