Ask the Dermatologists
I've heard there is a vaccine for melanoma.  How effective is it?

Research has actually led to the development of several melanoma vaccines. Unlike the vaccines given to prevent diseases such as chicken pox, measles, and tetanus, the melanoma vaccines do not prevent us from getting this deadly skin cancer. The melanoma vaccines offer patients with advanced melanoma an experimental treatment option.

The earliest studies showed promise for using a vaccine to treat melanoma that had spread. One study enrolled 263 patients with stage IV melanoma (the most advanced stage). All patients underwent surgery to remove the cancer. After the surgery, one group received a melanoma vaccine. The study found that 39% of the patients receiving the vaccine were alive after 5 years. Only 19% of the patients who did not receive the vaccine were alive after 5 years.

While encouraging, researchers have not been able to duplicate these results on a regular basis. Much remains to be learned about why a vaccine works for one patient with melanoma and not others.

The belief that vaccines will eventually offer some patients a safer and more effective treatment for advanced-stage melanoma remains. Melanoma is one of the few cancers in which the person’s immune system seems to play a role in fighting the cancer. The goal is to create a vaccine that boosts the immune system so that the body consistently recognizes melanoma cells. Doing so, may allow the body to identify and kill melanoma cells that could not be removed during surgery. It could also prevent new melanoma tumors from forming.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) reported late in 2006 that combining a treatment known as gene therapy with a melanoma vaccine proves effective in mice when melanoma has spread. Further studies are planned.

Early Detection Still Offers Highest Cure Rate
Dermatologists caution that while research holds promise of better treatment for melanoma that has spread, early detection and treatment are still most effective. Become familiar with your birthmarks, blemishes, and moles so you know what they look like and can spot changes. If you notice a new growth or a spot on your skin changes, make an appointment to see a dermatologist. Even melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, has a 95% cure rate with early detection and treatment.

Hsueh E, et al. “Prolonged survival after complete resection of disseminated melanoma and active immunotherapy with a therapeutic cancer vaccine.” Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2002. December 1;20(23):4549-4554.

Roher, B. “Gene therapy: Success for metastatic melanoma.” Dermatology Times. 2006. November;27(11):35.

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     © American Academy of Dermatology, 2010  All rights reserved.

Page last updated 4/11/07

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