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YOUR HEALTH: A combo of therapies tackling metastatic cancer

An experimental combination of therapies that is wiping out metastatic cancer in mice

PITTSBURGH — Every hour in the United States, one person dies of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer

Doctors have had success for the past ten years with a treatment called immunotherapy, a treatment that uses parts of the body's own immune system to fight cancer.

"But about 60% of patients will eventually progress or develop resistance," admitted Dr. Ravi Patel, Radiation Oncologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Hillman Cancer Center.

"Some patients they're just not able to tolerate the immunotherapy as well. They get toxicity."

Now scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are testing a combination of targeted radiation, given by injection, with immunotherapy.

"We're just delivering a very low dose to stimulate the immune system, not necessarily kill cancer cells," explained Dr. Patel.

The researchers tested the therapy in mice and found that even when the mice were given a low dose of radiotherapy their immune systems revved up and wiped out the cancer. 

Scientists say they plan to apply for FDA approval to conduct human clinical trials on the combination therapy.

"It's not just good enough to extend survival," added Dr. Patel.

"We want to eradicate someone's cancer. Even when it's in the metastatic setting."

The dangers of melanoma

Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body. 

Most likely, it will develop on areas that are exposed to the sun, like your back, legs, arms and face. 

More common in people with darker skin, melanomas can develop in soles of your feet, palms of your hands and fingernail beds as well. 

The first signs you may have melanoma are a change in an existing mole or the development of a new pigmented or unusual-looking growth on your skin.

Moles are uniform in color and with a distinct boarder separating the mole from the surrounding skin. 

Causes of developing melanoma happens when the melanin-producing cells develop wrong. 

A healthy cell ushes older cells to the surface of your skin in order to die off, but when cells develop DNA damage the newer cells may begin to grow uncontrollably and eventually form cancerous cells.

Now there's a possible vaccine

One new type of technology for melanoma is currently being tested and it is an injection vaccine that goes directly into the tumor. 

Scientists are hopeful it will train the immune system to recognize and attack any melanoma cells. 

The vaccines are currently being studied at University of California and are made of either viral or bacterial proteins recognized and known to jumpstart the immune response.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.