Promising Research in Treating Melanoma Through Vaccines
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Even though it accounts for about 1% of skin cancers, it does cause a large majority of skin cancer deaths. Skin cancer is largely treated by removing cancerous cells, but research is exploring ways to battle skin cancers with vaccines using a person’s immune system.
Melanoma is one of three main types of skin cancer, with the other two being squamous and basal. These cancers are named for the cells in which they usually originate. Melanomas are found in the melanocytes, which are cells that make melanin, the pigment that protects skin from harmful effects of the sun.
Melanomas can develop anywhere on the body, but on men, they are more likely to develop on the chest and back, and on women, they are more likely to develop on the legs. Melanomas also can develop on the neck and face, as well as the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and underneath nails. Rarely, they can develop in the eyes, mouth, and genital and anal areas.
Melanoma is more common in Caucasians than African Americans, and the risk of developing a melanoma increases with age. Before age 50, women have a higher risk, while after age 50, the risk is higher for men. Additional risk factors include exposure to ultraviolet rays, such as from sunlight (frequent sunburns, especially in childhood), and exposure to tanning beds and sunlamps. A family history of skin cancer as well as having fair skin, freckles and light hair also can increase the risk. Some conditions, such as dysplastic nevus syndrome, also heighten the risk.
The American Cancer Society’s estimates for melanoma in the United States for 2020 are that over 100,000 new melanomas will be diagnosed. Nearly 7,000 people are expected to die of melanoma. There is positive news, however. Scientists are working diligently to determine new and better ways to treat skin cancer.
Skin Cancer Treatment Methods
Surgery is the main way of treating most skin cancers and, if a melanoma is caught early, removal through surgery provides a cure. But if a melanoma is more widespread, additional treatment may be needed. Some traditional treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy and radiation, are not always as effective for skin cancer because it is more difficult to isolate and target those cancer cells. Newer therapies — such as immunotherapies, targeted therapies, genetically modified viral therapies and cellular therapies — are enhancing the cure rates for patients with resected high-risk, locally advanced and metastatic melanoma.
However, vaccine research for treating melanoma (as well as vaccines for other types of cancers) has shown promise. Unlike vaccines such as chickenpox that are designed to prevent the disease, vaccines for melanoma are developed to keep the disease from returning. Personalized treatment vaccines are tailored to an individual’s cancer cells so they can recognize those cells and target them. Several vaccine trials are still in early stages, but they highlight new opportunities for treating melanomas. Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center currently has a protocol that will soon reopen to enroll patients with high-risk resected melanomas. Patients are encouraged to speak with their dermatologist or medical oncologist to discuss these options in detail.
Skin Cancer Prevention
Avoiding skin cancer remains the best option, of course, and although some risk factors cannot be minimized, many can be.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends these prevention tips:
- Stay in the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Do not let your skin burn.
- Avoid tanning and UV tanning beds.
- Protect yourself by wearing clothing, a hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, and use a water-resistant UVA/UVB sunscreen with an SPF of 30+.
- Apply 2 tablespoons of sunscreen to your body 30 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours or right after swimming or excessive sweating.
- Examine your skin from head to toe every month. Don’t forget to check your back, lips and bottom of your feet.
- See your doctor/dermatologist every year for a professional exam.
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