Cancer-killing virus one of two new melanoma treatments


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The FDA approved the first cancer-killing virus, which stimulates the immune system to fight the tumor cells.

Patients with melanoma have even more hope after the FDA approved two new groundbreaking treatments this week.

Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is estimated to strike 73,870 Americans in 2015 and kill 9,940 people. However, melanoma research has been on the leading edge of cancer treatment advancements, and immunotherapy especially has been showing great promise.

Our researchers were excited to be a part of the studies that led up to the approval of both of these drugs. We think these are just the tip of the iceberg in what could be next in melanoma treatment.

New melanoma treatments

Because tumors are made up of our own cells, our immune system doesn’t view them as foreign invaders, and so it doesn’t attack them. However, on Oct. 27, 2015, the FDA approved the first cancer-killing virus, which stimulates the immune system to fight the tumor cells.

Imlygic, made by the pharmaceutical company Amgen, is a modified herpes virus that is injected in the melanoma, which causes the tumor cells to burst. This causes the immune system to “wake up” and join the fight.

It may sound crazy that our immune system wouldn’t recognize a tumor as something it should attack, but without immune suppression, we would always be attacking our own body. For example, if you are pregnant, you don’t want your immune system to see your baby as a foreign body and attack it.

Tumors take advantage of this, but researchers are using immunotherapy to find ways of getting around that tumor immune suppression, and Imlygic is one of these methods.

During a trial, 16 percent of patients treated with Imlygic saw their tumors shrink for at least 6 months. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a good start, and it adds another treatment option for patients with melanoma.

Along with the cancer-killing virus, on Oct. 28, 2015, the FDA also expanded the use of the drug Yervoy as an additional therapy to slow the risk of recurrence for patients with stage 3 melanoma. After surgery to remove the melanoma lesions and nearby lymph nodes, Yervoy is given to patients to block a molecule that plays a role in slowing down or turning off the body’s immune system.

During a trial, 49 percent of patients taking Yervoy had their cancer return after an average of 26 months. This is compared to 62 percent of patients who received a placebo, whose cancer returned after an average of 17 months. Again, this is not perfect, but with the FDA approving the expanded use, more melanoma patients will be able to take advantage of this treatment option.

Watch for signs of skin cancer

The approvals of these new drugs in just a couple of days shows the speed with which we are making advancements in the treatment of melanoma patients.

However, that doesn’t mean we can become lax in identifying potential skins cancers as early as possible. All adults should be screened for skin cancer once a year – or more frequently if they have certain risk factors.

You also can follow the ABCDE rule to watch for signs of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: One side of a mole does not match the other.
  • Border: The edges are irregular.
  • Color: The color is not the same all over.
  • Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser)
  • Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

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