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Melanoma/Skin Cancer Health Center

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Melanoma Patient Tumor Free in T-Cell Clone Study

Immune Therapy for Late-Stage Melanoma: No More Cancer in 1 of 11 Patients
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 5, 2012 -- One of 11 patients facing death from treatment-resistant, late-stage melanoma is cancer free 3.5 years after experimental treatment with clones of his own immune cells.

"The patient is doing fine. He is a teacher in high school, and has been teaching from two or three months after he finished therapy," study leader Cassian Yee, MD, of Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, tells WebMD.

Despite this dramatic result, the therapy this patient received isn't ready for prime time. Ten other study patients, who also had failed to benefit from multiple previous treatments, eventually died.

Successful treatment depended on isolating and cloning just the right kind of cancer-fighting immune cell. This happened in only two of the 11 study patients. Yee says his team now has refined the technique. Further clinical studies are under way.

The treatment is one of several forms of adoptive immunotherapy now under intense study at several medical centers. Each of these treatments captures a patient's own tumor-fighting cells, grows them to high numbers in the lab, and infuses them back into the patient.

National Cancer Institute researcher Steven Rosenberg, MD, PhD, pioneered the field. Rosenberg used immune cells taken from inside patients' melanoma tumors. A small number of patients treated with these tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, or TIL, became cancer free.

But only selected patients have the right kind of TIL for this treatment. And there's another huge drawback. The treatment calls for patients to have their existing T cells wiped out by intensive chemotherapy, sometimes with whole-body radiation. And then they have to take high doses of an immunity-boosting drug, which also causes severe side effects.

"Unfortunately, this is fairly toxic and limits the availability of the treatment to patients who can handle the toxicity," Dana-Farber Cancer Institute researcher Marcus O. Butler, MD, tells WebMD. Butler, who has conducted similar research, reviewed the study findings for WebMD.

Butler says that Yee's team showed that anti-tumor immune cells can survive when patients are given much less toxic chemotherapy and lower doses of the immune-boosting drugs.

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