ATLANTA - An Oregon man, given less than a year to live, had a complete remission of advanced skin cancer after an experimental treatment that revved up his immune system to fight the tumors.
The 52-year-old patient's dramatic turnaround was the only success in a small study, leading doctors to be cautious in their enthusiasm. However, the treatment reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine is the latest in a small series of successes involving immune-priming treatments against deadly skin cancers. "Immunotherapy has become the most promising approach" to late-stage, death-sentence skin cancers, Dr. Darrell Rigel, a dermatology researcher at the New York University Cancer Institute in New York, who had no role in the research, said.
Still, the immune-priming experiments have yet to yield a consistent therapy. Even researchers who worked on the study involving nine patients and just one success are quick to couch the result.
"This is only one patient," study co-author Dr. Cassian Yee of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle said.
And two years after his recovery, the patient fell out of contact with researchers and scientists do not know his condition.
Melanoma is a cancer in the skin cells that make pigments and cause skin to tan as part of the body's attempt to protect itself from ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. Cancer begins when radiation overloads and damages the cells, causing mutations.
About 62,000 cases are diagnosed in the United States each year, and about 8,000 people die of melanoma annually.
When caught early, melanomas can be treated easily by surgically removing the cancerous patch of skin. But "once it has spread, basically nothing works," Mr. Rigel said.
Recently scientists decided they might have another option: helping the body's immune system. Doctors long thought immune system cells, which effectively attack threats like viruses, gave a pass to cancer cells. The theory was that because cancer cells are generated by the body, the immune system perceived them as part of the body.