(KARE) Clinical trials of a new treatment for the deadliest form of skin cancer are underway in the Twin Cities. The trials are offering hope for patients who have tried other treatments with recurring cancers.
The treatment is an “oncolytic immunotherapy” or V-Tec, for short. It involves injecting a live, genetically-altered Herpes Simplex Type A virus (normally associated with cold sores) directly into the melanoma tumors.
“What is different about it is that it is a virus that kills cancer,” explained Dr. Thomas Amatruda, Minnesota Oconology, who is one of the key researchers. “It is a virus that is designed to grow selectively in cancer cells and not in normal tissues. It grows in the cells and pops them.”
Amatruda said the treatment is particularly useful in Stage 3 melanoma patients who have had recurring tumors. One of his clinical trial patients is Gary Neilson, 73, of Plymouth.
“It will be six years in July,” said Neilson, referring to his initial Melanoma diagnosis. “They wanted to take the melanoma off my back immediately.”
The melanoma was removed, but treatment after treatment, the tumors returned.
“We were running out of options for him,” said Amatruda. Neilson entered the V-tec trial in May, 2014. At first, Amatruda said the treatment was not what some expected.
“His melanomas got larger and in three months, they were larger than when we started,” said Amatruda,” but we know that immune therapies can take a while to work. So, after three months, he continued treatment and they began to shrink. Now they are shrinking everywhere. We have had areas that have completely gone away.”
“This is the first thing that has really worked,” said an ecstatic Neilson. “I am pretty excited and Dr. Amatruda is pretty excited, too.”
The V-Tec works in two ways, according to Amatruda. First, it attacks the tumors, but secondly, it creates an immune reaction through the entire body.
“In cancer treatement, the problem is not what you see,” said Amatruda. “It is what you cannot see. So, if we could inject everything we saw, we still would be missing cancer cells hiding in the body, but the immune system goes all through the body and it is hard for cells to hide from the immune system.”
Amatruda and Neilson agreed that often there is an initial strong reaction to the injected virus. Neilson suffered fevers and chills, but after three or four treatments, the side effects disappeared.
“Now,” said Neilson, “I go in, have the injections, and walk out.”
Amatruda said they have used the treatment on patients in their 80’s and 90’s with little trouble.
The melanoma clinical trials are still recruiting viable candidates for treatment. The Virginia Piper Cancer Institute can be reached at 763-236-5619. The treatment is only available in clinical trials. It has not been approved by the FDA, as yet. Dr. Amatruda said the FDA has favorably reviewed the trials, but there is not time frame for approval and wider application.