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September 2007 Issue

Leslie Oleksowicz, MD
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Immunity Booster May Slow Metastatic Melanoma

By Amanda Harper
Published September 2007

Cases of metastatic melanoma have increased by 690 percent in the past 50 years, yet few life-extending treatments are available for people diagnosed with the disease.

In an effort to slow cancer growth and improve patient survival, a multicenter clinical trial, led locally at UC by Leslie Oleksowicz, MD, will test an experimental new drug that boosts the body’s natural defense system.

Disease-fighting cells in the body—known as cytotoxic T-cells—protect the body from invasion by foreign molecules such as bacteria and viruses or from abnormal cancer cells. Researchers believe that early abnormal cancer cells can sometimes escape the body’s natural defense system by activating a pathway that “turns off” the body’s own immune response against such tumor cells.

But scientists believe they can stop this phenomenon by “revving up” the immune system.

The new drug, ipilimumab, is a monoclonal antibody that works by blocking the molecule CTLA-4, which is responsible for shutting down the immune system so that the body can fight off cancer cells.

“Ipilimumab blocks cellular interactions that prevent the immune system from eradicating cancerous cells that are growing in the body,” says Oleksowicz, UC associate professor of clinical medicine. “The drug essentially inhibits the inhibition, which we believe will slow disease progression.”

The current chemotherapy treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration for metastatic melanoma—dacarbazine—is effective in only 5 to 20 percent of patients.

Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer. It occurs when cancerous cells form in the skin’s melanocytes, the cells that produce the pigmentation that gives humans natural body color. Excessive exposure to the sun and artificial light sources—such as tanning beds—is associated with an increased risk for the disease.

UC needs about 200 patients who have been diagnosed with inoperable stage-3 or stage-4 melanoma for the study. For more information, call (513) 584-2951.

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