Mimi Murphy's Medical Breakthroughs: Fighting Melanoma

Medical Breakthroughs
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Each year, up to 50,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the United States. Now researchers have found a way to destroy the cancer and save lives.

Each year, nearly 10,000 Americans will die from the deadly skin cancer melanoma.

"Melanoma is the most rapidly increasing cancer in the United States," said Steven Rosenberg, M.D., Ph. D.

Dr. Rosenberg, who is the chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, may not be able to slow the growing number of cases, but he is hoping to slow the number of people who die from the disease.

"Virtually no treatments are capable of curing it and that's where the new treatments that we've developed can have some effectiveness," Dr. Rosenberg said.

That new treatment is changing the future of some skin cancer patients. Doctors remove immune cells from a patient's tumor. The cells that can recognize the cancer the best are then grown in the lab.

"Then we give those cells back to the patient in very large numbers where they can fight and destroy the cancer," said Dr. Rosenberg.

The technique is called adoptive transfer. The cancer-fighting cells can survive and actually grow inside the body. In an early study, nearly half of the 13 patients -- who had failed all other treatments -- showed cancer regression. In four patients, the tumors disappeared.

"A young 17-year-old boy -- who had melanoma throughout his body -- he was the first patient to receive this new treatment two and a half years ago. He's still completely disease-free and living normally," said Dr. Rosenberg.

Thirty-one-year-old Michael Barbato was diagnosed in 1999. No therapy has helped. Today, he'll undergo this experimental treatment.

"It's been such a long journey with this cancer, and I'm excited to get the chance to try. This is a great opportunity of life," said Barbato.

The technique is highly experimental and is currently only offered to melanoma patients who have failed other treatments. Dr. Rosenberg says it's too early to tell if the treatment will work for Barbato long-term, but at the time this interview was done, he was doing fine.

If you would like more information, please contact:

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