Melanoma Patients are Seeing Dramatic Results with New Therapies at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital

"Melanoma is now one of the most curable of the solid cancers," said Dr. Michael Atkins, a clinical oncologist at MedStar Georgetown. "We think as many as 50 percent of patients could be cured of their melanoma with these new treatment approaches."

April 20, 2015

Immune System Fights off Deadly Skin Cancer in Some People

(Washington, D.C) - Gary McLaughlin and his wife Susan of Rockville, Maryland were two years into their dream retirement in 2014 when one morning Gary woke up with a spot of blood on his pillow. A tiny amount of blood was coming from a mole on his left ear. When it happened again the next morning, Susan insisted her husband get it checked right away.

"It was a little spot about the size of an eraser," recalled Gary McLaughlin, a 75 year old retired hospital executive.  He had the mole removed in March 2014 and it was diagnosed as melanoma, a virulent form of skin cancer.  After two surgeries he thought he was clean. But six months later he felt a lump on his neck under the ear where the mole had been. A CT scan showed that McLaughlin’s cancer had spread to his neck, liver and lungs. He had metastatic melanoma.

"I knew this was a serious situation," said McLaughlin. "It was a disappointing moment 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."

McLaughlin then came to see Michael B. Atkins, MD, a clinical oncologist at MedStar Georgetown and deputy director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center who has led research into new treatments of patients with melanoma for many years.

"Dr. Atkins told me that half of the people using prior standard treatments for my stage of melanoma survived six to nine months. As an alternative he offered me the option of getting into a research trial being conducted by his program."

"Gary McLaughlin received an immunotherapy combination of an already FDA approved drug called Yervoy or ipilimumab and another immunotherapy, Opdivo or nivolumab," said Dr. Atkins. "We know that these immunotherapies work by restoring the function of tumor specific immune cells inside the tumor, enabling the immune system to fight the cancer on its own. These are a class of drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors."

Melanoma patients like Gary McLaughlin, 75 pictured on the right with his wife Susan, are bouncing back thanks to a new immunotherapy treatment option from Dr. Atkins and the Lombardi cancer teams.
Melanoma patients like Gary McLaughlin, 75, pictured on the right with his wife Susan, are bouncing back thanks to a new immunotherapy treatment option from Dr. Atkins and the Lombardi cancer teams.

McLaughlin was amazed at the results. "The bump on my neck began shrinking almost immediately. After six weeks it was totally gone. After six infusions, I feel excellent."

"It has been unbelievable to go from having very little to offer patients with advanced melanoma only five years ago, to a situation where we almost have an embarrassment of riches," said Dr. Atkins. "But it still requires judgment, understanding, research and experience to identify how best to use the available treatments. In what order? In which patients? Alone or in combination? It’s great to be an oncologist when we actually have treatments that have the potential to make their tumors go away."

Michael Harris, 67, a father of three from Waldorf, Maryland is another MedStar Georgetown patient to benefit from new melanoma treatments that use the body’s immune system. His stage 4 melanoma was diagnosed in 2012 shortly after his wife had died of lung cancer.  "By April of 2013, the cancer had spread to my liver, lungs, lymph nodes and soft tissue of my back. I was told that the treatments I was getting were no longer working," said Harris.

In June 2013 Harris came to MedStar Georgetown and enrolled in a study of the immunotherapy Ipilimumab and nivolumab under the supervision of Dr. Atkins and his team.

"Two weeks after I had my first treatment my tumor was vanishing and after three months my liver and lungs were free of cancer," said Harris. "The only side effect I had was a rash on my arms, legs and face, but I was able to treat that with some steroid cream."

Almost two years later Harris is still feeling well, working part time, riding his horses again and traveling. "Any place the cancer showed itself has either disappeared, shrunk or stayed the same. And I’ve had no new cancer arise."

"Melanoma is now one of the most curable of the solid cancers," said Dr. Atkins. "We think as many as 50 percent of patients could be cured of their melanoma with these new treatment approaches. These approaches are not chemotherapy and therefore don’t have the side effects traditionally associated with chemotherapy. Instead, side effects are all related to activation of the immune system.  Examples of side effects include a rash due to immune activation in the skin or diarrhea due to immune activation in the colon. Fortunately, we can give medications that address those side effects without hurting the effectiveness of the immunotherapy that’s helping the body fight the cancer."

Because of volunteer patients like McLaughlin and Harris, additional clinical trials have been developed to study the latest drug regimens and combinations. The results of these trials, including those comparing ipilimumab and nivolumab combination that Harris and McLaughlin received to the individual agents administered alone, are eagerly anticipated.

"I’ve had six treatments and I feel excellent," said Gary McLaughlin. "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." 

About MedStar Georgetown University Hospital

MedStar Georgetown University Hospital is a not-for-profit, acute-care teaching and research hospital with 609 beds located in Northwest Washington, D.C. Founded in the Jesuit principle of cura personalis—caring for the whole person—MedStar Georgetown is committed to offering a variety of innovative diagnostic and treatment options within a trusting and compassionate environment.

MedStar Georgetown’s centers of excellence include neurosciences, transplant, cancer and gastroenterology. Along with Magnet® nurses, internationally recognized physicians, advanced research and cutting-edge technologies, MedStar Georgetown’s healthcare professionals have a reputation for medical excellence and leadership. MedStar Georgetown University Hospital—Knowledge and Compassion Focused on You.

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