Researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute say modified viruses show promise in treating melanoma

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah has the highest rate of melanoma cases in the nation, and now researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute said they may be close to finding a cure using a process that involves injecting live viruses into the patient's skin.

"Our patients are living longer, and we're able for the first time in melanoma to potentially talk about a cure, which is something we have not been able to talk about before," said Dr. Robert Andtbacka, who is a surgical oncologist.

Andtbacka said the new treatment teaches the body to heal itself. So far, 60 percent of the clinical trial patients are seeing dramatic results.

"What we do with this treatment, we take the virus... this is not the common virus; we take these viruses for herpes, others are cold viruses, and what we do is change the way these viruses work," Andtbacka said.

Researchers said the viruses are injected directly into the melanoma tumor, and cells then learn to fight and stop the cancer.

"It develops a memory in the immune system, so it can fight this at other sites and distant places," Andtbacka said.

It also allows patients to avoid having to go through chemotherapy and other painful surgeries.

"Many patients view as standard chemotherapy being very difficult to take," Andtbacka said. "You lose your hair. You feel nauseated and other side effects. These viruses are very easily tolerated."

MaryAnn Gerber, a melanoma survivor, said if it works the injections will save others from similar pain she had to go through after doctors found melanoma on her left cheek.

"If they could have done that to my face, so I didn't have to have the 6-inch scar on my face and do the other surgeries, I can't even imagine what my life would have been like for those two years," Gerber said.

This is a nationwide study with the Huntsman Cancer Institute playing one of the leading roles. They said they're not ready to declare a cure yet, but they're on the road to get there.

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