Immunotherapy to Play Important Role in Fight Against Melanoma, A Growing Threat for Men

Posted in GUMC Stories

JULY 10, 2015 — Men are most frequently affected by prostate, lung and colorectal cancers, but they should also be concerned about melanoma, Michael Atkins, MD (new window) told attendees at a fundraiser for the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

While it is already the fifth most common cancer in men, incidence of melanoma is growing faster than any other cancer, Atkins said June 22 at the 16th annual Men’s Event, this year held at Morton’s Steakhouse and presented by K&L Gates and the National Cancer Prevention Fund.

The popularity of tanning beds and increased sun exposure has made melanoma one of the top two causes of cancer-related mortality in women ages 25 to 35. But melanoma mortality is also growing significantly among men over age 50 because of later tumor detection and more aggressive tumor behavior. “Because of this great increase in melanoma incidence largely related to sun exposure, I think the economic impact and emotional impact of melanoma is tremendous,” Atkins said.

However, advances in immunotherapy are giving hope to doctors and patients alike. Proteins on the surface of a tumor known as checkpoints shut down the immune system’s tumor response, but researchers have identified antibodies that can block two specific checkpoints, reactivating the immune system so it can fight the tumor. Recent findings from GUMC, in collaboration with researchers at Yale, Memorial Sloan Kettering and University of Pittsburgh, have indicated that combining the two checkpoint blockers reactivates the immune system’s tumor response in as many as 60 percent of patients.

“This is creating a dramatic change in the way we think about melanoma and the good thing is that we can also use these same therapies and apply them to other tumors,” Atkins said. “We’re taking what we’ve learned from melanoma and applying it to other tumors and we’re starting to see similar results.”

Exceptions to the rule no longer

Just a few years ago, very few patients survived for more than two years after receiving a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma. “Three years ago, I used to hate treating melanoma, I’ve got to be honest with you. The patients always died and they had terrible toxicities from the treatments,” said Sean Collins, MD, PhD, associate professor of radiation medicine. “Dr. Atkins and his team now are probably going to cure almost 50 percent of the patients with metastatic melanoma.”

“In the patients where the disease has spread to distant places, it used to be considered a death sentence where half the patients would get maybe six to nine months and less than 10 percent of patients survived two years,” Atkins said. “But that’s all changing.”

Atkins also spoke about melanoma survivors who have benefitted from advances in immunotherapy, including five former patients who attended the event. “All of them are disease-free at the moment and we are optimistic that they are going to stay that way,” he said. “What’s even more exciting is that their stories are no longer the exceptions. We hear about these exceptional responders – these are not the exceptions. These are becoming the rule.”

In addition to applying treatments developed for melanoma to additional cancers, the next steps for research on immunotherapy include testing combinations of immunotherapy and surgery, radiation and precision medicine, as well as developing therapies that are more effective and less toxic than those currently available.

“We are making progress, particularly at Lombardi, in treating the advanced stages of melanoma,” Atkins said. “The support that you provide helps us move faster to develop these new therapies and to extend them to other patients, helping create survivors along the way and to change the face of cancer forevermore.”

By Kat Zambon

GUMC Communications