It may not be the usual place where doctors check for malignant melanoma, but Costa Mesa resident Kirk Howe has it in his lungs. Ten years ago, he had a cancerous mole removed under his left eye.
"Then out of nowhere it showed up near my left lung, said Howe.
It also spread to his stomach. Howe and his wife are expecting their first child in four weeks. The survival for this type of diagnosis is bleak.
"It's not a number you want to look at," said Howe.
"Patients who develop this metastasis, historically, had only about 6 months to live," said Dr. Steven J. O'Day from The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute.
But there is a new hope. The Federal Drug Administration just approved a new drug called Ipilimumab, also known as IPI, for the treatment of advanced skin cancer. O'day was a lead investigator.
"Not only was it improving average survival of patients who were on the program, but it was also creating long term survivors," said O'Day. "And even some patients who we think may be cured from this treatment."
But IPI doesn't kill cancer cells, it takes another approach.
"We're strengthening the patient's own immune system through these T Cells, which are like Pac Man cells, that seek and go destroy the cancer" said O'Day.
Since the drug revs up the immune system, there can be some side effects that trigger an auto-immune response. But O'day said it's not very common and it can be managed.
"If it gets severe, about 10 to 15 percent will get severe side effects," said O'Day. "Then we have to stop the drug and settle their immune system down."
But, IPI remains effective even when it's stopped. Howe has been on the regimen for three months and is seeing results. With a new baby on the way, he has a lot to fight for.
"If anything that gives me more motivation to survive and go on and do more good," said Howe.
O'day says IPI is the first melanoma treatment to get FDA approval in 10 years. He said he and other researchers are working on other drug combinations that may be even more effective than IPI alone.