Melanoma patients seeing new hope from combination of immunotherapy, targeted vaccine

Denise Dador Image
Friday, May 19, 2023
New combination approach to treating melanoma showing promise
A combination of immunotherapy and a customized vaccine is showing promise as a treatment for melanoma patients.

In 2023 alone, doctors estimate 200,000 Americans will be diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

It will claim nearly 10,000 lives and the number of cases has been rising for decades.

But scientists are developing new treatments at a very fast pace.

For one local man, the timing was perfect.

"It was the type of pain where I knew something was wrong," said firefighter Brett Mattson.

At the age of 38, debilitating back pain stopped him in his tracks.

"They just initially thought it was a compression fracture, and when surgeons opened me up, they found a bunch of black cancerous tumors which turned out to be spindle-cell melanoma," he said.

Mattson was in stage four of this rare melanoma subtype. His prognosis was poor.

"My radiation oncologist just said I would give you about 10 to 12 months to live," Mattson said.

But his doctors decided to try something new, a combination of radiation and immunotherapy.

It worked.

"I couldn't believe it when he told me I was in remission after six months. Because five to six months before a doctor just said I was going to die," he said.

That was four years ago.

Now, melanoma researchers are finding promise once again. This time combining the immunotherapy Keytruda and an mRNA vaccine. That's the same platform used for the COVID vaccines.

Instead of coronavirus, this vaccine is customized to target a patient's own tumor.

"It's based on a patient's individual mutations in their own melanoma," said Dr. Kim Margolin, medical director of the Melanoma Program at St. John's Cancer Institute.

In a new study, researchers studied stage three patients following surgery. After two years, they found the vaccine-Keytruda combo decreased a patients' risk of melanoma recurrence or death by 44% versus Keytruda alone.

"It is one of the first cancer-directed vaccines that appears to show activity against melanoma. Every few years right now in melanoma, we're getting a pretty big breakthrough," she said.

Margolin said more study is needed and one drawback is that personalized vaccines still require a lengthy time to produce.

Mattson said the pace of new advances should give many patients a reason to hope.

"Give it a try because you can't make a decision until you at least give it a try. Give it a try for your family and friends," he said.