Many Areas of Research
Scientists are constantly searching for new ways to detect skin cancer, assess risk, and predict patient outcomes. They are interested in finding new treatments and new ways to deliver drugs and radiation.
As scientists get a better understanding of what causes skin cancer and what genetic and environmental factors play a role, they should be able to design new drugs to hinder the development of cancer.
Clinical trials are designed to answer important questions and to find out whether new approaches are safe and effective. Research has already led to advances, such as photodynamic therapy, and researchers continue to search for better ways to prevent and treat skin cancer.
Researching Techniques to Deliver Drugs
One area that scientists are working on is development of techniques for delivering chemotherapy drugs directly to the area around the tumor, rather than sending the chemotherapy through the entire body. One of these techniques is called hyperthermic isolated limb perfusion.
Hyperthermic isolated limb perfusion sends a warm solution containing anti-cancer drugs directly to the arm or leg in which the cancer is located. A tourniquet is used to temporarily cut off the blood flow while the chemotherapy drugs are injected directly into the limb. This allows the patient to receive a high dose of drugs only in the area where the cancer occurred.
For basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, researchers are studying gene changes that may be risk factors for the disease. They also are comparing combinations of biological therapy and surgery to treat basal cell cancer.
Discovering links between inherited genes, environmental factors, and skin cancer is another area of research that might provide scientists with insight they can use to screen people to determine their risk for the disease. Recently, scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) found one genetic link that dramatically increases the chance of developing melanoma.
Research on Melanoma Treatments
Other studies are currently exploring new treatment options for melanoma. One recent study discovered a protein that may help block the development and spread of melanoma. This discovery could lead to a new treatment for melanoma patients in the future. Several other studies are examining the potential for using vaccines to treat melanoma.
Traditional vaccines are designed to prevent diseases in healthy people by teaching the body to recognize and attack a virus or bacteria it may encounter in the future. Cancer vaccines, however, are given to people who already have cancer. These vaccines stimulate the immune system to fight against cancer by stopping its growth, shrinking a tumor, or killing the cancer cells that were not killed by other forms of treatment.
An Advance in Treating Melanoma
In June of 2011, an important advance in treating melanoma was announced at an annual cancer meeting. A drug called ipilimumab was approved for treating the disease, and it works differently than traditional chemotherapy. It uses immunotherapy to help the immune system recognize and reject cancer cells. When it’s successful, immunotherapy can lead to complete reversal of even advanced disease. Some patients with stage IV metastatic disease who were treated in early immunotherapy trials after other therapies were unsuccessful are still in complete remission more than 20 years later.
Developing a vaccine against a tumor such as melanoma is more complicated than developing a vaccine to fight a virus. Clinical trials are in progress at the National Cancer Institute and other institutions to test the effectiveness of treating stage III or stage IV melanoma patients with vaccines.