FDA approves first treatment for rare form of skin cancer

FDAThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted accelerated approval to Bavencio (avelumab) for the treatment of adults and pediatric patients 12 years and older with metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), including those who have not received prior chemotherapy. This is the first FDA-approved treatment for metastatic MCC, a rare, aggressive form of skin cancer.

"While skin cancer is one of the most common cancers, patients with a rare form called Merkel cell cancer have not had an approved treatment option until now," said Richard Pazdur, M.D., acting director of the Office of Hematology and Oncology Products in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research and director of the FDA's Oncology Center of Excellence. "The scientific community continues to make advances targeting the body’s immune system mechanisms for the treatment of various types of cancer. These advancements are leading to new therapies - even in rare forms of cancer where treatment options are limited or non-existent."

According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 1,600 people in the United States are diagnosed with MCC every year. While the majority of patients present with localized tumors that can be treated with surgical resection, approximately half of all patients will experience recurrence, and more than 30 percent will eventually develop metastatic disease. In patients with metastatic MCC, the cancer has spread beyond the skin into other parts of the body.

Bavencio targets the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway (proteins found on the body’s immune cells and some cancer cells). By blocking these interactions, Bavencio may help the body's immune system attack cancer cells.

Bavencio received an Accelerated Approval, which enables the FDA to approve drugs for serious conditions to fill an unmet medical need using clinical trial data that is thought to predict a clinical benefit to patients. Further clinical trials are required to confirm Bavencio’s clinical benefit and the sponsor is currently conducting these studies.

The approval of Bavencio was based on data from a single-arm trial of 88 patients with metastatic MCC who had been previously treated with at least one prior chemotherapy regimen. The trial measured the percentage of patients who experienced complete or partial shrinkage of their tumors (overall response rate) and, for patients with a response, the length of time the tumor was controlled (duration of response). Of the 88 patients who received Bavencio in the trial, 33 percent experienced complete or partial shrinkage of their tumors. The response lasted for more than six months in 86 percent of responding patients and more than 12 months in 45 percent of responding patients.

Common side effects of Bavencio include fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, diarrhea, nausea, infusion-related reactions, rash, decreased appetite and swelling of the limbs (peripheral edema). The most common serious risks of Bavencio are immune-mediated, where the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells or organs, such as the lungs (pneumonitis), liver (hepatitis), colon (colitis), hormone-producing glands (endocrinopathies) and kidneys (nephritis). In addition, there is a risk of serious infusion-related reactions. Patients who experience severe or life-threatening infusion-related reactions should stop using Bavencio. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take Bavencio because it may cause harm to a developing fetus or a newborn baby.

The FDA granted this application Priority Review and Breakthrough Therapy designation. Bavencio also received Orphan Drug designation, which provides incentives to assist and encourage the development of drugs for rare diseases.

The FDA granted accelerated approval of Bavencio to EMD Serono Inc.

The FDA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, protects the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products for human use, and medical devices. The agency also is responsible for the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, and products that give off electronic radiation, and for regulating tobacco products.

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