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Melanoma patients may benefit from electroporation

Researchers are studying electroporation to treat advanced melanoma, which kills about 9,000 people a year.
December 18, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Each year, more than 76,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma. Experts say 9,000 among those diagnosed die.

Once it spreads, this type of skin cancer is extremely difficult to treat. But now researchers say a new therapy is helping them shock away some of the most stubborn tumors.

With 20 acres of grapes to grow, animals to feed, and grass to cut, Martin Bajuk is a busy man. But a recent diagnosis of melanoma threatened to slow down this active 77-year-old.

"I noticed, ah, sort of like a wart," said Bajuk.

He had three surgeries, but the cancer spread and Bajuk was running out of options.

Dr. Adil Daud, MD, a medical oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco said melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

"It's a frustrating cancer to treat, and it's also very resistant," said Daud who is studying electroporation for advanced melanoma.

He injects a gene-called i-l-12 into the tumor and uses a device to deliver electricity. The charge opens pores in the tumor so it can absorb the i-l-12. Then, the body's immune system sends special cells to destroy the cancer.

"And then once the immune system has done that, there's what's known as memory cells, and so those memory cells circulate around and if they see other melanoma, they will get rid of that too," said Daud.

In a trial, eight of nine patients saw all or most of their tumors shrink. None reported side effects. Bajuk says one downside of the treatment is that it's painful.

"It's over 1200 volts of electricity that is just unbearable," said Bajuk.

But the pain lasts for just a second and with his cancer in check, Bajuk can focus on what he loves most - working in the outdoors.

The procedure is given three times over eight days and each shock lasts only a few milliseconds.

Researchers say this therapy would likely be combined with other therapies to see maximum benefits. Five other centers around the country are involved in the electroporation study.