Medical Breakthroughs: Fighting Melanoma

BACKGROUND: Melanoma is the most rapidly increasing cancer in the United States. Each year, up to 50,000 new cases of the cancer are diagnosed in this country and nearly 10,000 people die from the disease. Melanoma accounts for about four percent of skin cancer cases, but it causes about 79 percent of skin cancer deaths.

RISK FACTORS: According to the American Cancer Society, researchers do not know exactly what causes melanoma, but they do know that certain risk factors are linked to the disease:

  • Moles: Moles are benign (non-cancerous) skin tumors. People with lots of moles, and those who have some large moles, have an increased risk for melanoma.

  • Fair skin: Fair skin, freckling, and light hair increases the risk of melanoma.

  • Family history: Around 10 percent of people with melanoma have a close relative (mother, father, brother, sister, child) with the disease.

  • Immune suppression: People who have been treated with medicines that suppress the immune system, such as transplant patients, have an increased risk of developing melanoma.

  • UV radiation: Too much exposure to UV radiation is a risk factor for melanoma. The main source of such radiation is sunlight. Tanning lamps are another source.

  • Age: About half of melanomas occur in people over age 50, but younger people can also get melanoma.

  • Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP): This is a rare, inherited condition. People with XP are less able to repair damage caused by sunlight and are at greater risk of melanoma.

NEW HOPE: Researchers from the National Cancer Institute believe they have found a novel way to fight melanoma. The technique, known as adoptive transfer, involves raising a patient's immune cells in the laboratory to recognize and fight the patient's own tumor. The cells are then injected back into the body. The technique is highly experimental and involves the body's T cells, which are responsible for finding and attacking foreign cells that have entered the body. In their study, researchers extracted some of these cells from 13 patients with melanoma and exposed them in the lab to a small segment of the patient's cancerous tumor. The cells learned to recognize the tumor fragment as a foreign body and fight it. The cells were able to live and actually grow inside the patient's body, providing enough cells to replace the patient's existing immune system. In 6 of the 13 patients, the treatment resulted in at least a 50-percent shrinkage of the tumors with no new tumors forming. In four patients, the tumors disappeared.

"For the first time, we've been able to get the cells that we give to survive and grow inside the body. When it does that, it attacks the cancer and causes the cancer to shrink," said Steven Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., from the National Cancer Institute.

Of the treatment, he says, "It's very early in the development of this, but it's one that has us quite excited."

Dr. Rosenberg says the treatment is highly experimental. In the future, he says it may be studied in other cancers such as breast, ovarian, prostate and lung cancer.


National Cancer Institute
Surgery Branch
Building 10, Room 2B42
Bethesda, MD 20892
(301) 496-0997

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