Herpes Virus Effective for Late Stage Melanoma

Intensive research has recently been completed on melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, and now we have new evidence that a form of the herpes virus, best known for causing cold sores, has shown effectiveness when treating late stage melanoma. While researchers aren’t positive as to the cause of melanoma, exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning booths increase risks.

In the United States each year, 53,600 people find out they have melanoma, and this number has more than doubled in the last thirty years. Melanoma is one of the rarer, but most deadly forms of skin cancer. It is usually noticed as an abnormal skin growth or mole on the skin, but can also be found in the eye, mouth, soles of the feet, between the toes, under fingernails, digestive tract, nose, esophagus, anus, vagina, and can even form on otherwise normal-appearing skin. The first symptoms of melanoma are often noticed with changes in the appearance of an existing mole or the appearance of a new and unusual growth on the skin.  While a cure for herpes does not yet exist, this is really good news.

New research in regards to a form of the herpes virus as a treatment for melanoma was presented on May 27, 2009 at the American Society of Gene Therapy’s 12th Annual Meeting. The study involved 50 patients suffering from inoperable advanced stage melanoma who were injected with Onco VEX GM-CSF, a gene-modified, immune-enhanced herpes simplex 1 virus. According to lead researcher Neil N. Senzer, M.D., the scientific director at Mary Crowley Cancer Research Centers, “The results are extremely provocative. The virus, initially derived from a cold sore, can be readily modified and is capable of killing tumor cells, both directly and by eliciting an immune response.” The researchers report only minimal side effects with 58 percent of the patients achieving a one-year survival rate and 26 percent actually responding to the treatment. The median survival for all participants was 16 months. Researchers said the treatment rarely resulted in serious illness for those with healthy immune systems and there is no increased risk of developing another form of cancer.

Melanoma is a very serious form of skin cancer and for now the only effective cure is surgical removal of the primary tumor and affected skin prior to reaching a Breslow thickness over 1 mm. Treatment may not be limited to surgery but could also include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation. There are several factors that may increase a person’s risk of melanoma including fair skin, a history of sunburn, excessive sun exposure, those living in sunny or high altitude climates, family history of melanoma, moles, a weakened immune system, exposure to coal tar, wood preservatives, creosote, arsenic compounds found in pesticides and radium, and those who have extreme sensitivity to the sun.

Though melanoma can be deadly there are some simple steps that can be taken to avoid increased risks of skin cancer. Limit sun exposure, especially from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., always wear sunscreen even during the cooler months, cover the skin with clothing when possible, avoid all tanning salons or tan accelerants, be careful when taking certain medication because they may make your skin more sensitive to the sun, examine your skin on a regular basis and see a doctor if you notice anything irregular, and see your doctor regularly for skin exams.

Preliminary clinical studies have proven positive for using the herpes virus to treat breast cancer and other tumors. A randomized phase III trial is underway to test the treatment option. Apply sunscreen daily from 20-30 minutes prior to sun exposure, reapplying every couple of hours. When swimming or exercising don’t forget to reapply afterwards. Always keep a bottle of sunscreen handy and teach children the importance of sunscreen and regular application. Children younger than 6 months should avoid any sun exposure.

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