YOUR HEALTH: New hope for one of the deadliest cancers

LOS ANGELES, California – Patients with metastatic melanoma have faced grim prospects: the American Cancer Society says the five-year survival rate is only 15%.

When John Gilligan was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma.

He, his wife Carol Baker, and his doctors chose the SD-101 clinical trial as a first line treatment.

"The numbers for survival for metastatic melanoma have not been very good, so trying something experimental seemed like a good idea," said John.

The trial combines the immunotherapy drug Keytruda with injections of SD-101 into tumors.   SD-101 is a bacteria-like agent that changes the microenvironment so the immune system kills cancer cells more effectively.

Oncologist Deborah Wong says it's like a flare to get the process going.

"Not only does this combination work to shrink the tumor that we're injecting," said Dr. Wong, a professor of Medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine.

"But on scans, the tumors apart, far away from the ones we're injecting, also shrank."

KEYTRUDA:   Pembrolizumab or Keytruda is an immunotherapy medication that helps shrink tumors, helping patients with advanced staged melanoma live longer.   It is an anti-PD-1 inhibitor, also known as a checkpoint inhibitor, helping make cancer cells more vulnerable to attack by using your body's own immune system.   It is an antibody that promotes the tumor-killing effects of T-cells; the white blood cells you have that help fight off diseases.   In 2014 the FDA approved pembrolizumab to treat patients with the following advanced stages of melanoma: stage 3 that is unresectable or unable to be removed completely using surgery alone, and stage 4 also known as metastatic; meaning it has spread to other organs and parts of the body.   Many experts recommend anti-PD-1 therapy as a first-line of treatment for patients with advanced melanoma, but you must speak with your physician about the risks and benefits.

Nine study participants got immunotherapy for the first time.   Seven of them had good responses, including two whose tumors disappeared.   That's a 78% response rate, nearly twice as good as Keytruda alone.

The other 13 had had immunotherapy before and had modest or no response.

After six months, John's tumors disappeared.

He now gets just Keytruda, with few side effects.

"I've managed to keep working and keep working out and being active and, you know, all of those things that help keep you optimistic."

Optimistic enough to start planning a family trip to Paris when he retires next year.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.

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