Each year, an estimated 62,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma. If not detected and treated early, it is an incurable cancer. And while this new research is still in its infancy, it has many scientists intrigued and some melanoma patients hopeful.
Melanoma, typically caused by excessive sun exposure, starts innocuously. It first appears as a tiny mole but, within a couple of months, it begins growing relentlessly. Gradually, it works its way under the skin, spreading cancer cells throughout the body.
One American dies from this disease every hour, which is why the study out this evening is so encouraging to melanoma patients like 57-year-old Gardner Vinnege, who lives on the outskirts of Seattle.
"This is the most encouraging, the most optimistic we've been able to be. This is the most promising thing we've seen by far," Vinnege told ABC News.
In this experiment, researchers took blood from a melanoma patient who was near death and from that blood extracted a type of cell that's actually programmed by the body to attack cancer, CD4 + T cells.
"It's targeted to tumor cells and not to normal cells," Dr. Cassian Yee of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle, the lead author of the study, told ABC News. The researchers even isolated which of those cancer-fighting cells were most aggressive against the patient's own melanoma and then, over the next three months, grew a vast, new army of five billion of those particular cells. Finally, the scientists injected the cancer-fighting cells back into the patient.
The results were stunning. Before the treatment, the cancer had spread through his lymph nodes. Just two months after treatment, CT and PET scans showed no sign of cancer anywhere in the patient's body. Two years later, the patient still showed no signs of cancer.
"The results of this study are truly dramatic," Dr. Darrell Rigel, past president of the American Academy of Dermatology, said. "This is the first time we've ever seen a melanoma melt away like this in someone with advanced disease."
This treatment will now be tested on more melanoma patients. But researchers say the potential of this approach may be much broader. "The use of these cancer-fighting cells can be used to treat other types of cancer, like breast cancer or prostate cancer or lung cancer. Those studies have not been done yet," Yee said.
But when it comes to advanced skin cancer, scientists are off to a promising start -- a new weapon against a disease that has been so vexing.