Boosting the Body’s Immune System to Stem the Spread of Deadly Skin Cancer

Gary received an experimental therapy to boost his own immune system to fight the disease. The treatment is a combination of two drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors.

July 7, 2015

Boosting the Body’s Immune System to Stem the Spread of Deadly Skin Cancer
By Emily Turk

Melanoma
Gary, right, and his family

A small spot of blood on his pillow proved an ominous sign for Gary McLaughlin of Rockville, Md. The blood was coming from a mole close to his ear that was about the size of a pencil eraser. His wife, Susan, persuaded Gary to visit his doctor. The mole was removed and the tissue examined. The result? Gary had melanoma, an often virulent form of skin cancer.

After two surgeries to remove the mole and surrounding tissue, Gary thought the crisis was over. He and Susan could return to their well-earned happy retirement. But, six months later, he felt a lump on his neck under his ear. A CT scan revealed that Gary’s cancer had metastasized—spreading from the original site to his neck, liver and lungs.

“It was a disappointing moment,” Gary recalls. “To think how I had just retired and was now having this problem that was going to affect how we would spend the rest of our lives.”

But Gary had no intention of giving up. Instead, he came to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital to consult with oncologist Michael B. Atkins, MD, a leading melanoma researcher.

“Dr. Atkins told me that half of the people using prior standard treatments for my stage of melanoma survived six to nine months. But he offered me the option of getting into a research clinical trial—and I leapt at the chance,” Gary says.

Gary received an experimental therapy to boost his own immune system to fight the disease. The treatment is a combination of two drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors.

“We know that these immunotherapies work by restoring the function of tumor-specific immune cells inside the tumor,” explains Dr. Atkins. “This enables the immune system to fight and destroy the cancer.”

Gary was amazed at the results. “The bump on my neck began shrinking almost immediately,” he says. “After six weeks, it was totally gone.”

“Melanoma is now one of the most curable of the solid cancers,” Dr. Atkins says. “We think as many as 50 percent of patients with advanced melanoma could be cured of their melanoma with these new treatment approaches. Although this therapy has side effects, they are unlike those typically associated with chemotherapy. And, if they occur, they can be addressed with medications that don’t interfere with the effectiveness of the immunotherapy that’s helping the body fight the cancer.

“It has been unbelievable to go from having very little to offer patients with advanced melanoma, just five years ago, to a situation where we almost have an embarrassment of riches,” Dr. Atkins adds.

“I’ve had six treatments and I feel excellent,” says Gary. “I have a part time job, and I’m planning to get out in the garden. I feel very lucky to be in an exciting area at an exciting time. My wife and I have a European trip we’d like to take. And as the soon-to-be grandfather of twins, I have lots to do.”

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