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Last updated on Saturday, June 29, 2013
(UNDATED) - Doctors tell you to use sunscreen every day to avoid skin cancer, but there could be a new weapon against the most dangerous form of the disease.
A vaccine for melanoma passed its initial human trial without causing any adverse side effects, according to a study published online this week in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Researchers at Duke University and Merck Laboratories are injecting dendritic cells into patients, the cells that are part of our immune system that normally protects us from disease. "You take a protein from the melanoma that was always there but the immune system couldn't see, and you enhance the ability of the immune system to see it," said Dr. Ruemu Birhiray, an oncologist at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis.
Normally, cancer cells block protein fragments that are essential to the immune system, allowing cancers such as melanoma to worsen. If further clinical trials show promising results, Birhiray says the study could lead to personalized cancer treatment. "This is the holy grail of cancer research. Could you imagine if we could teach our bodies to get rid of all our cancers, and there would never be chemotherapy anymore?"
Birhiray stresses that at least two more trials are needed before the Food and Drug Administration would approve a cancer vaccine. "The first phase, you want to prove that the drug is safe for humans. Once you have established that, you go to phase two, which is when you begin testing the treatment on people with a particular disease," said Birhiray, adding the second phase involves a small group of patients. A third, larger study will compare those taking a drug with other patients who are not.
Clinical trials take an average of eight years to complete, meaning it would be at least six years before a melanoma vaccine would be available, provided it passed all its trials. But oncologists are excited that the vaccine, which could be used to treat other cancers if it's effective, has made it this far. "Melanoma is one of the most difficult cancers to treat. So, when you see, especially in an early phase study, that it appears to not just be safe but also appears to be able to treat that disease, there's a lot more excitement than there probably would have been if you just showed that it was safe," Birhiray said.
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