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Skin Cancer: A Match for Melanoma

Just two experimental pills daily helped a skin-cancer sufferer beat his survival odds.

By Cathryn Delude // The MGH Research Issue 2011
Case Study

Justin Gabbard

John Murphy had always spent a lot of time outdoors, often at high altitude, where the impact of the sun’s ultraviolet rays can be particularly harmful. Six years ago, a suspicious sun-damage spot was removed from Murphy’s abdomen, and though his physician thought the malignancy had been caught in time, some tumor cells must have escaped into his bloodstream. In fall 2010, Murphy received a diagnosis of advanced, stage IV melanoma. There were fast-spreading tumors in his lungs and hip, leaving him a likely survival time of mere months.

But Murphy’s brother, a cancer researcher, sent him to Keith Flaherty, director of developmental therapeutics at the MGH Cancer Center and a pioneer in developing targeted therapies to fight melanoma. Tests of Murphy’s cancer cells showed they harbored a mutation of the BRAF gene, making them vulnerable to a drug, then in clinical trials, that blocked the cancer gene’s activity. As part of a separate trial, Murphy was given an experimental combination drug designed to impede the action not only of BRAF but also of a second mutated gene, MEK, that is often activated as cancers develop resistance to BRAF inhibitors.

“I started taking the two pills on Dec. 28, 2010, and in just a few days I could tell they were working,” Murphy says. He soon walked an entire golf course, and he resumed climbing mountains, a lifelong passion. A CT scan in June 2011 showed that a tumor on the upper lobe of his right lung, once the size of a handball, had shrunk to the size of a pea.

Murphy calls the two pills his Smith and Wesson—his anticancer guns. But he realizes his disease could still develop resistance. “I don’t know whether this is an encore where I go back onstage for a little while to say goodbye, or whether it may be a whole new chapter that goes on for years,” he says. “Whichever it is, I’m grateful.”

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