Putting melanoma into remission

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
July 31, 2008 8:53:50 PM PDT
There is a type of skin cancer that attacks in places where the sun doesn't shine. This kind of melanoma only affects a small percentage of people, but the drug that's now putting that rare cancer in remission is also providing hope for the one million others who are fighting sun-related skin cancer -- the most common type of cancer in the U.S."The melanoma was actually right here on my upper back, right in the middle," Melissa Parrelli said.

At age 20, Parrelli planned on living her dreams. But it was her nightmare that came true when she heard her diagnosis.

"The doctors translated it to skin cancer and my whole world turned upside down basically," she said.

The sun is to blame for most melanomas, but doctors are now discovering a gene called KIT. It can trigger mucosal melanomas to grow in places like the mouth and throat.

Researchers believe an abnormality in the KIT gene allows the tumor to grow, but a drug used to treat other cancers, called Gleevec, appears to put this type of melanoma in remission.

"The Gleevec actually goes in and blocks that gene that's turned on and kind of shuts the switch off," said Dr. F. Stephen Hodi, a researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

An elderly patient had a melanoma that started in her anal area and spread to her abdomen and chest. But after nine months on Gleevec, her tumor mass is much smaller.

"This patient went on to get Gleevec and had a dramatic response from just a few weeks to the drug, where more than 80 percent of her tumor shrunk," Dr. Hodi said.

KIT mutations are found in a small percentage of cases, but understanding the gene could unlock the mystery of other melanomas.

"It makes me feel better knowing that the doors are open," Parrelli said. "And once you are in that exploration stage, you never know what you can find."

The goal is to use this development to find new therapies for those suffering from skin cancer, a disease that will hit one in five Americans this year.

The patient treated with Gleevec is still doing well nine months later. There are some possible side effects, including water retention and rashes.

For more information, please contact:
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

  • Dana-Farber.org
  • Gleevec.com
  • Cancer.gov


    WEB PRODUCED BY: Bill King