Treatment for late stage skin cancer works with body’s immune system

Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven Hospital (file).

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) – Working with the body’s immune system in the battle against Melanoma. Cancer research is moving more into what’s called Immuno-oncology.

Patients like Mary Mannion are benefiting.

Mary’s skin cancer was first detected on her leg.

“I think it’s right here,” as she points to a faint scar, “I had a mole that changed shape, size, color.”

Stage-four Melanoma.Surgeons removed it and Mary underwent targeted therapy. Eleven years later, the cancer came back.

She says, “The Melanoma had metastasized here,” pointing to her chest area.

Most Melanomas start on the skin says Mary’s doctor.

“The problem is those cells can travel through the blood stream to other parts of the body,” says Dr. Mario Sznol at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven.

He went on to explain, “Melanoma cells that have traveled from the primary site through the blood stream to other organs, that’s what’s called metastatic Melanoma.”

Mary’s cancer had spread to her liver, lung and soft tissue.

“A large liver lesion here, this is another one here, this is another one here,” as Dr. Sznol points to a CAT scan.

Fortunately for the high school history teacher at the time, Dr. Sznol was researching the benefit of combining two drugs, Opdivo and Yervoy, on patients with late stage skin cancer.
The focus was unlocking the tight grip of the tumor so the body’s immune system could fight back.

He says, “What these antibodies do is, they block that off-switch so that the lymphocytes can stay on and can kill the tumor.”

The latest scan in July revealed nothing worrisome.

“The liver now looks almost completely normal,” says Dr. Sznol, “We’ll have to come back in five years, six years and at seven years to really say for sure that she won’t have any recurrence but there is a very good chance she won’t recur.”

While Dr. Sznol cautions not every patient will respond like Mary — the results he says are breakthrough, “If we look at a long term survival curve, we believe that the survival in five years will be somewhat 40 to 50 percent. Remember that in the old days it used to be five to ten percent.”

Mary says, “I plan to be around for many, many, more years.”

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