Last updated on March 6, 2018
A new combination of drugs has seen a melanoma tumor literally dissolve.
The tumor disappeared so quickly the patient was left with a cavity from where the tumor once was.
Dr. Paul Chapman, an attending physician and head of the melanoma section at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, continues to monitor the 49-year-old woman.
The woman was part of a group of 142 metastatic melanoma patients — melanoma that has spread to other parts of the body — receiving the new combination drug treatment.
In the report, Chapman, who is also lead author, said, “What was unusual was the magnitude [of recovery], and how quickly it happened.” The woman’s tumor vanished within three weeks after her first that immunotherapy treatment.
Chapman explains that the woman took the same two-drug combination as others with melanoma as part of the study. Researchers found that study participants had better results when they took two drugs rather than one.
The surprise came when they realized how well the two-drug combination worked, particularly on this patient. Doctors said they did not anticipate that a melanoma tumor could disappear so quickly. So quickly in fact, that it left a cavity in her body.
At the end of the study, melanoma was undetectable in 22 percent of the combination group.
“Twenty-two percent may not sound high, but in the world of melanoma treatment, it is significant,” said Dr. Sylvia Lee, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“We’re talking about patients with stage IV melanoma. Usually, in cancers, when someone has stage IV disease, for the majority of people, it’s no longer curable,” she added.
Lee was not involved in the new study, but she is working with patients who are receiving the drug combination in Seattle.
The case study and report has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Doctors remain wary of the drug combination, admitting it does not work for everyone and can have side effects such as severe diarrhea.
However, the drug combination, called immunotherapy, is part of a new approach to treating melanoma with medication that boosts a person’s immune system.
The medications are also pricey. Ipilimumab costs $120,000 for four treatments, and nivolumab is priced at $12,500 a month, the Wall Street Journal reported.
One of the drugs is ipilimumab — sold under the brand name Yervoy – that removes an inhibitory mechanism that can prevent specific immune cells from killing cancer cells. The second drug in the combination was nivolumab — brand name Opdivo – which can help prevent T cells from dying.
Chapman says that the combination drug treatment would offer new and promising treatment for melanoma patients.
“It kind of confirms an assumption that we’ve all had for many decades: that the immune system can recognize cancers and can kill large tumors if properly activated,” Chapman said.
The US Food and Drug Administration has approved both drugs separately for melanoma use, however, they have not approved their combined use.