New Breakthrough in Skin Cancer Battle?

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Summer means fun in the sun for many Americans. However, the risk of getting skin cancer is always there.

Now scientists have found an amazing new technique for fighting this deadly disease.

Melanoma strikes tens of thousands of Americans every year. But a promising new treatment could offer hope for a disease that's often seen as a death sentence.

"The results of this study are truly dramatic," said Dr. Darrell Rigel of the American Academy of Dermatology. "This is the first time we've

ever seen a melanoma melt away like this in someone with advanced disease."

Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. It can start as a harmless looking mole. But the sun's harmful rays cause those cells to mutate.

If it's not caught early, the cancer can quickly spread throughout the body.

Experts estimate more than 60,000 new cases will be diagnosed just this year and about 8,000 people will die from the disease.

But scientists are working on a new immune therapy for patients with advanced skin cancer.

Researchers took blood from a man who had less than a year to live. They then isolated a specific immune cell that attacks cancer.

"It's targeted to tumor cells and not to normal cells," said Dr. Cassian Yee of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center.

Researchers used those cells to grow an army of fighting cells, five billion of them in fact.

When the cancer patient received an injection of these cells the results were amazing.

A before image showed a spot of cancer on the patient's lymph node. But just two months after the treatment, the cancer was gone. And after two years, doctors still found no sign of the cancer in his body.

For Melanoma patients like 57-year-old Gardiner Vinnedge the results are very exciting.

"This is the most encouraging, the most optimistic we've been able to be," Vinnedge explained.

Still, scientists working on the project are cautiously optimistic. Out of nine patients who took the radical therapy, only one had such a dramatic turnaround.

Scientists say more research is needed on this type of immune therapy. But they see the potential to help not just melanoma, but a broad range of cancers.

"The use of these cancer fighting cells can be used to treat other types of cancer, like breast cancer or prostate cancer or lung cancer," explained Dr. Yee.

It's a remarkable new way to harness the body's own cancer fighting ability and hopefully change lives without the harmful side effects of chemotherapy and other harsh drugs.

*Originally published June 20, 2009

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Charlene Israel

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