UW has been chosen as the site for a new clinical trial focusing on patients with metastatic melanoma. Partnering with OncoSec Medical Inc., a company developing a new type of immunotherapy, the UW has already begun recruiting patients suffering from the advanced skin cancer.
“We chose UW, as we had previously worked together on another clinical trial focusing on Merkel cell carcinoma [one of the deadliest skin cancers],” said Punit Dhillon, CEO and president of OncoSec.
There are 2 million new cases of skin cancer and 12,000 deaths from the most malignant forms every year. From 1970 to 2009, rates of skin cancer increased by a factor of six among people aged 18 to 39. According to a study led by Dr. Shailender Bhatia, assistant professor in the oncology division of UW Medicine and principal investigator of the new clinical trial, the 10-year survival rate for patients with metastatic melanoma in particular is less than 10 percent.
“It’s nice [working with UW] as we’ve been able to move forward really quickly,” Dhillon said.
Current treatment options for melanoma — and skin cancer in general — are limited. More than 8,000 people in the United States died in 2008 from metastatic melanoma alone.
A type of immunotherapy, employing the body’s own immune responses to fight disease, however, has been associated with longer-lasting responses for some patients.
“It’s a relatively unconventional path,” said Dr. Paul Nghiem, UW associate professor of dermatology and medicine. Nghiem is working with OncoSec on another clinical trial, the Merkel cell carcinoma study.
OncoSec employs a minimally invasive and cell-specific method signaling the immune system to destroy specific cancer cells. The region is localized, so the immune cells do not begin attacking healthy tissue.
“The drug is a blueprint,” Nghiem said. “It alters the body’s immune response, telling the body to kill the tumor in a small region, keeping it local. But when it was injected, the response killed tumors even at a distance.”
According to Oncosec, 53 percent of patients with metastatic lesions stabilized under this treatment, while 15 percent completely responded. In this trial, 25 patients with stage III or IV melanoma will be treated and studied over a period of 24 weeks. Three treatments will occur during each treatment cycle. After the study, patients will be followed for up to five years in order to ensure safety.
“A disadvantage of systemic delivery is that we do not know whether the drug is reaching an optimal concentration into the tumors where it is really needed, and that there are systemic side-effects,” Bhatia said. “Using this creative local approach, we have sustained delivery for a drug into the tumors without significant systemic side-effects.”
The UW is one of four sites enrolled in the study focusing on metastatic melanoma, the others being the John Wayne Cancer Institute, Lakeland Cancer Center, and UC San Francisco. The metastatic melanoma study is just one of several that OncoSec is helping conduct around the country; the others focus on cutaneous T-cell lymphoma and Merkel cell carcinoma.
“We’re really hoping to improve the quality of life for the patients,” Dhillon said. “It’s clearly an unmet need.”
Reach reporter Garrett Black at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GarrettJBlack
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