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Experimental Vaccine for Melanoma Shows Promise

WebMD Health News

March 13, 2000 (San Francisco) -- You've heard about vaccines for polio, smallpox, and hepatitis. Now scientists are working to design a vaccine that could prevent the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma. In the past five years, vaccines have emerged as a novel and exciting -- but still experimental -- therapy for the skin cancer that will be diagnosed in nearly 50,000 Americans, and claim more than 7,000 lives, this year.

Melanoma is a cancer of the cells in the skin that produce pigment. It is almost 100% curable when recognized and treated as soon as it appears. Still, it kills a significant number of people. Physicians attending a meeting of the American Association of Dermatology (AAD) here Monday learned about different approaches being followed to design vaccines that could treat and eventually prevent melanoma.

"[Vaccine] is one of the hottest areas in the treatment of melanoma," Jean-Claude Bystryn, MD, professor of dermatology and director of the Melanoma Immunotherapy Clinic at the New York University Medical Center, tells WebMD.

Researchers hope to develop a safe vaccine that will slow the disease's progression by stimulating an antitumor response in the body. Several studies have been conducted, and others are under way. Their initial results show that melanoma vaccines are safe and improve survival rates, raising hopes that vaccines may someday also be used to prevent melanoma.

Although vaccines were traditionally used to treat infectious diseases, Bystryn says, their ultimate use is as a preventive therapy. "If it can be used in that setting," he says, "eventually we will use it for people who have a high chance of getting [melanoma]."

Still, "we have a long way to go," Bystryn says. "I don't think we can develop a vaccine that can stop melanoma in its tracks, so we're working on a treatment that can slow the progression. Once you can do that, we can improve on it and make it better and better."

The most effective treatment for melanoma currently is a combination of surgery and chemotherapy, which can get rid of 90% of the disease, he says. "Being able to add vaccine will allow physicians to get rid of the rest."

Bystryn is also working on a vaccine for breast cancer, and he says scientists hope to someday develop vaccines for other cancers such as that of the lung or prostate.


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