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Herpes virus may help cure deadly skin cancer

February 1, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
There hasn't been a treatment for melanoma in a decade, but now doctors found that a virus associated with a sexually transmitted disease may help in the fight to kill cancer cells.In the U.S. alone, 70,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year, and almost 9,000 will die from it.

Ira Dickstein is a melanoma patient, but he's also an avid bird watcher.

"It's just like you're right there, but they don't even know it," said Ira Dickstein, a melanoma patient.

Ira is searching for something. He's searching for a rare find.

"I've never seen a wandering paddler," said Ira.

But now, it's not a bird he's looking for. Ira has spent the last seven years trying to find a cure for his cancer.

"I found a significant black and blue area on the inside of my toe. It was hidden. It was big enough when I could see it, when I looked at the bottom of my foot. That's when I knew there was something wrong, but I didn't know it was melanoma," Ira explained.

From one toe, the melanoma spread above his knee.

"It's under the skin now," described Ira.

Ira is taking part in his third clinical trial, but it's the first time he's seen his lesions disappear.

"My melanoma actually retracted a bit," he said.

The lesions started to disappear when doctors injected them with an sexually transmitted disease.

"It can be engineered to specifically target cancer cells," explained Gregory Daniels, a medical oncologist of the University of California San Diego.

Daniels injected a form of the herpes virus directly into Ira's melanoma lesions.

When the body recognizes a virus is in the body, it increases a patient's immune response.

"Our body automatically recognizes that as a dangerous situation and attracts a response to it," said Daniels.

It's working for Ira.

"The lesions that were directly injected shrunk, and one disappeared completely. The others were going backwards," said Ira.

It's a good sign that his search for a cure is ending, and he can get back to looking for nature's hidden gems.

"The rarer the bird, the better for me," said Ira.

Melanoma is more than 10 times more common in whites than in African Americans. It occurs more in men than women, and unlike many other common cancers, melanoma has a wide age distribution. In fact, it is one of the more common cancers diagnosed in teenagers.