One day melanoma, the most deadly forms of cancer, will be cured. And two patients at the East Bay Cancer Center in Oakland, part of a national study at 13 medical clinics, are working stridently toward making that happen.
They will participate in the testing of a synthetic skin cancer vaccine, which may one day cure melanoma.
The trials, led by the National Cancer Institute, are a follow-up to the initial clinical vaccine trials lead by Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg. In the initial study, 31 patients with metastasized melanoma, the most advanced form of skin cancer, were injected with the vaccine and interleukin-2, a standard treatment for skin cancer. Tumors shrank by 50 percent in some cases. Interleukin-2, by itself, can shrink tumors by 17 percent.
“The (initial) results are promising,” said Dr. Jai Balkissoon, who is administering the second trials at the center.
But smaller tumors don’t free a patient of the disease, and the new trials will separate the effects of the vaccine from interleukin-2, to determine whether the vaccine will fight off cancer altogether. “It will take time to find out if this is an actual cure,” said Dr. Balkissoon.
The tests began six months ago and are expected to continue for the next couple years. As is the custom in these trials, known as randomized trials, Dr. Balkissoon’s patients are unaware if they’ve been given interleukin-2 or interleukin-2 and the vaccine.
“Vaccines are the trend for today and tomorrow, because melanoma doesn't respond well to chemotherapy,” Dr. Raymond Ramirez of the Department of Dermatology at the University of California - San Francisco, said Tuesday at a brown-bag talk on the dangers of skin cancer.
The vaccine being tested nationally contains large amounts of a man-made antigen, a protein that stimulates the body to fight off disease. The body automatically produces the antigen when cancer appears, said Dr. Balkissoon, but not in amounts sufficient enough to trigger a full-blown immune response.
With vaccines still years away, Dr. Ramirez reminded his audience that people should rely on common sense to prevent the disease, especially in a sun belt state like California.
“Geographically, if you look at the weather channel, the UV index is high in California,” he said. “Even in Northern California; so you have to take the sun seriously.” Skin cancer rates have risen California, and Dr. Ramirez reminded listeners to use sunscreen, wear protective clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat, and to avoid the sun between 10 am and 4 pm. He said people should check skin regularly for changes, paying particular attention to the evolution of moles. Self-vigilance is key in stopping melanoma, he said.
“Prognosis is excellent provided it’s caught at an early stage.” says Dr. Elizabeth Zettersten at the UCSF Melanoma Center. “Otherwise it can cause death.”