Metastatic Melanoma: Is a Cure in Sight?
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. When discovered early, it is often cured with surgery alone. But for those whose melanoma has spread to the brain (metastatic melanoma), the overall survival rate is less than 6 months. But a recent study shows that immunotherapy may hold new hope for patients with this devastating diagnosis.
The Promise of Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy is transforming the outlook for people with IV stage melanoma. Results from a clinical trial at Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in June 2017 show that a combination of two FDA approved drugs, ipilimumab (Yervoy) and nivolumab (Opdivo) can improve survival rates by 55%.
Early detection can save your life. Ask a dermatologist today!
A Successful Plan of Attack
Like a radar, your immune system’s T cells are always searching for threats. Once T cells recognize threats such as melanoma cancer cells, they become active. The T cells then attack them to help protect your body.
Some cancer cells are able to disguise themselves as healthy cells. They do this by sending a deceptive signal that puts the brakes on T cells. If this happens, T cells can’t recognize these cells as cancer, so the T cells cannot attack. This allows cancer to grow more easily.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors work by reversing the trick that the cancer cells
plays on the immune system. When these immunotherapy drugs turn the brakes off, the immune system are free to attack cancer cells, sometimes shrink tumors in mere days.
The initial results of this treatment were presented June 4 at the 2017 American Society for Clinical Oncology annual meeting reporting that more than 55 percent of patients’ tumors shrank, or even disappeared, in response to the drugs.
“Having these drugs available has changed my melanoma clinic from one with a lot of sad discussions going on to one that is more like a travel agency,” says Michael Atkins, MD, deputy director of Georgetown Lombardi. “So many patients are doing so well that they are doing things on their bucket lists.”
Promise Comes with Real Risks
While immunotherapy drugs are being hailed as a breakthrough in treating metastatic melanoma, they may also pose serious risks that stem from the very thing that makes them so effective. An unleashed immune system may attack healthy, vital organs including the liver, lungs, and kidneys.
A recent paper in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that use of these drugs carried a risk of side effects that were severe, required hospitalization or were life-threatening 54 percent of the time.
Clinical Trials Are Open
Right now, clinical trials evaluating the effectiveness of this breakthrough treatment are recruiting eligible patients whose melanoma has spread to the brain. These trials are open at 37 locations throughout the United States. Ask your healthcare provider if applying for this study may be right for you.
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Specialist doctor from the University Hospital in Gothenburg, alumnus UC Berkeley. My doctoral dissertation is about Digital Health and I have published 5 scientific articles in teledermatology and artificial intelligence.