There's been a lot of excitement about PLX4032, which has shown some dramatic effects against late-stage melanoma. Very few therapies have done anything at all in that patient population, so on that level, the excitement is justified.
The compound is an azaindole targeting a mutated form (V600E, that is, glutamate for valine at amino acid 600) of B-RAF, a well-known cancer kinase target. The compound seems to be very selective indeed for this form, with
no significant activity at wild-type RAF or other kinases (That glutamic acid makes all the difference). Update - that's overstating the case; see the comments section). A significant proportion of melanoma cases show this mutation, as it turns out.
Testing it out in the clinic has not been easy. As this Nature News piece details, one key was to come up with a better formulation than the original one. I can well believe it - azaindole kinase inhibitors are not the most tractable molecules on the planet, and PLX4032 doesn't look any less like a brick than the rest of 'em. (Update: fixed link to structure). The initial trials were done with crystalline material, which I'll bet doesn't dissolve worth a hoot, but the later runs were done with some sort of microprecipitated powder, which seems to behave better. They managed to get up to 720mg b.i.d., which is the sort of load you associate with antibiotics and similar horse pills, before dose-limiting tox set in.
Most of the patients in the study had the V600E mutation; the few that didn't showed no effects whatsoever. (And yes, this is an ethical study, because the standard of care for late-stage melanoma consists of everyone standing around wringing their hands). But of the group with the mutation, about 4/5ths of them showed partial or complete regression, which is unheard of.
Here's the bad news: that regression doesn't last. Of the people who responded to the drug, that response lasted from 2 to around 18 months. (And keep in mind, there were people with the mutation who also showed no response at all, for reasons that are totally unclear). What seems to be happening is either the tumor cells are mutating around the effect of PLX4032, coming up with yet another B-RAF variation, or there could be some cells around from the start that escape its effects (and then take over). We don't have survival data yet, but the best guess is that the drug will add a few months to the lives of these patients. It's not a cure, and that's the bad news.
But on the other hand, it's the first time anything has done much of anything for such patients. If we can find out why some of the V600E tumors don't respond, or better characterize the ones that re-occur after treatment, that could point the way to something more significant. That's not going to be easy - but it's not impossible, either. It's a start, for sure.