Cancer in any form is terrifying, but an aggressive form of skin cancer known as melanoma is establishing itself as particularly worrisome.
Even though five-year survival rates for melanoma, which was responsible for more than 9,700 deaths in the United States last year, have improved over a three-decade timespan from 82% to 93%, the incidence rate of melanoma remains on the rise. The American Cancer Society notes that while six of the top seven most common cancer types have witnessed an incidence rate decline between 2000 and 2009, melanoma incidence has risen by 1.9% per year.
As with any cancer, there's no surefire way to predict who will get melanoma and who won't, although researchers have a pretty good idea as to what risk factors greatly increase a person's chances of developing aggressive skin cancer. Topping that list is extended exposure to the sun and its potentially harmful ultraviolet rays over one's lifetime. The Mayo Clinic also lists family history and/or having a weakened immune system as other factors which could influence your chances of developing melanoma.
But, what if I told you there was a beverage you could drink that could result in a 20% decrease in your risk of developing melanoma? Intrigued?
This popular beverage could reduce your risk of developing melanoma
The good news is you're probably among the 83% of U.S. adults already consuming this beverage on a daily basis.
According to a seven-author, 10.5 year study published this month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, people in their 447,357-person study who drank four or more cups of coffee each day had a 20% lower likelihood of developing melanoma compared to those who didn't drink coffee. Most notably, this effect was only observed in people who drank caffeinated coffee, with decaf drinkers not witnessing this potential risk-reduction benefit.
The data came from a joint study run by the National Institutes of Health and the American Association of Retired Persons. Overall, of the more than 447,000 people tracked over the 10-plus-year period, 2,904 developed malignant melanoma, and another 1,874 developed early stage melanoma (early stage melanoma hasn't spread beyond the top layer of the skin). Once researchers factored in various controls and used UV exposure data based on the region in which study participants lived, researchers observed that people who drank four or more cups of coffee per day were diagnosed at a rate of 55.9 cases per 100,000 people per year. Conversely, those who didn't drink coffee were diagnosed at 77.64 cases per 100,000 people per year.
Does this conclusively mean that caffeine provides protection against aggressive forms of skin cancer? Unfortunately no. You should still wear sunscreen and take other precautionary measures to ensure the health and safety of your skin. However, the study does merit additional follow-up, as a high correlation between caffeine intake and lower melanoma risk was readily apparent.
Beyond coffee, we're seeing major advancements
Without losing sight of how serious a disease melanoma is, the past two years have been exciting in the field of cancer research, as we've observed more than a handful of advancements in treating advanced cases of melanoma, known also as metastatic melanoma.
GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) developed Mekinist and Tafinlar, as well as a companion diagnostic test, to treat BRAF V600E and BRAF V600K mutation-positive melanomas. Although the two drugs were first approved as monotherapies, the Food and Drug Administration gave its thumbs up to the duo being used in tandem in Jan. 2014. In clinical studies, Mekinist and Tafinlar caused tumors to shrink or disappear in 76% of trial patients, with an average response time (i.e. average amount of time for which patients' cancer shrunk) of 10.5 months. Comparatively, when Tafinlar was tested as a single agent it led to a 54% response rate and an average response durability of 5.6 months. This slowed progression would strongly imply that patient quality of life is being improved with this new combo therapy.
It should be noted that GlaxoSmithKline agreed to sell its oncology division to Novartis last year, although the asset swap between both companies hasn't as of yet been finalized. In other words, this combo therapy will soon be reliant on Novartis to deliver improved quality of life.
Cancer oncology kingpin Roche (NASDAQOTH:RHHBY) and Exelixis (NASDAQ:EXEL) also recently delivered superb clinical data in their coBRIM study involving investigational compound cobimetinib in combination with Zelboraf for the treatment of BRAF V600-mutation positive advanced melanoma. Studies demonstrated a 49% reduction in the risk of disease worsening or death for the combination therapy compared to just Zelboraf alone, and a statistically significant 3.7-month improvement in progression-free survival to 9.9 months. Chances are the FDA will rule on whether to approve or deny this combination therapy by the fourth quarter of this year.
We've also seen advanced melanoma be the stepping stone for revolutionary new treatments known as anti-PD-1 inhibitors which retrain the body's immune system in order to locate and fight cancer. Merck's (NYSE:MRK) Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb's (NYSE:BMY) Opdivo are two of these drugs which have been approved by the FDA to treat metastatic melanoma as a last line of defense. Although the response rate of Keytruda and Opdivo was just 24% and 32%, respectively, in clinical trials, we have to remember that these therapies are given after two, three, or even more therapies have failed to help an advanced melanoma patient. To even see response rates in the 24%-32% range that in some cases lasted well beyond six months is remarkable.
One step at a time
It's disheartening to see melanoma incidence rates on the rise considering the amount of time the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has devoted to educating the public about skin safety and skin health. Then again, it's also encouraging to see new studies undertaken that demonstrate simple ways people can potentially lower their risk of developing aggressive forms of skin cancer. On top of this we're also witnessing a discernable improvement in patient quality of life with new and innovative melanoma therapies.
Researchers have by no means won the battle, nor is this time for them to let their foot off the gas pedal, but it's plainly evident that we're heading in the right direction one step at a time, and that's pretty good news all around.
Now, whether or not you decide to celebrate this good news with a cup of coffee is entirely up to you.
Sean Williams owns shares of Exelixis, but has no material interest in any other companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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