Cancer killer in sexually transmitted disease

February 16, 2010 9:35:14 AM PST
Seventy thousand people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year in the United States. Almost 9,000 will die from it. There hasn't been a new treatment for melanoma in a decade, but now, doctors are using an STD to kill it. Birdwatcher Ira Dickstein is searching for a rare find.

"I've never seen a wandering paddler," Dickstein said.

But now, it's not a bird he's looking for. Dickstein has spent the last seven years trying to find a cure for his cancer.

"I found a significant black and blue area on the inside of my toe," he said. "It was hidden. It was big enough that when I could see it, when I looked at the bottom of my foot, I knew there was something wrong, but I didn't know it was melanoma."

From one toe, the melanoma spread above his knee.

"It's under the skin now," Dickstein said.

Dickstein is taking part in his third clinical trial, but it's the first time he's seen his lesions disappear.

"My melanoma actually retracted a bit," he said.

The lesions started to disappear when doctors injected them with a sexually transmitted disease.

"It can be engineered to specifically target cancer cells," said Dr. Gregory Daniels, a medical oncologist at the University of California in San Diego.

Dr. Daniels injected a form of the herpes virus directly into Dickstein's melanoma lesions. When the body recognizes a virus is in the body, it increases a patient's immune response.

"Our body automatically recognizes that as a dangerous situation and attracts a response to it," Dr. Daniels said.

It's working for Dickstein.

"The lesions that were directly injected shrunk, and one disappeared completely," he said. "The others were going backwards."

A good sign that his search for a cure is ending...and he can get back to looking for nature's hidden gems.

"The rarer the bird, the better for me," he said.

Melanoma is more than 10 times more common in whites than in African Americans. It occurs more in men than women, and unlike many other common cancers, melanoma has a wide age distribution. It occurs in younger as well as older people. In fact, it is one of the more common cancers diagnosed in teenagers.