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A new melanoma therapy

Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 8:09 AM EDT
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May is Melanoma Awareness month. Health experts say the rate of this cancer is continuing to rise, especially in women under 40 and men over 60. Over the past few years, immunotherapies have been effective for some patients, but researchers are now testing a new therapy for patients with advanced melanoma that has been tough to treat.

Steve and Janie Balzer have been married 45 years and together since their high school junior prom. Steve was just about to retire from his job as an electric company lineman when he felt a stabbing pain in his arm.

“Next thing I know this, this lump’s popping up, it’s maybe as big as your thumb, you know, it’s on my arm, I’m like ‘eh, I must’ve blown out a muscle or tendon,’” Steve recalled.

Steve was diagnosed with stage four melanoma.

“It was scary ... " Janie shared.

Steve had surgery but decided to skip additional treatments because of the side effects. Three years later, the cancer came back in his lymph nodes. This time, Diwakar Davar MD, a hematologist and oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, had a new option. A clinical trial combining Opdivo, an immunotherapy currently used in melanoma treatment, and an injection of another drug known as CMP-001.

“The combination that we’ve developed works about 60 to 70 percent of the time. So, it represents a substantial and significant improvement upon the effect of Opdivo alone,” explained Dr. Davar, MD.

Steve liked the idea behind the treatment.

“Jack up your immune system and shoot this CMP right into the tumor. And we’re going to train your immune system to go after that thing,” Steve described.

It worked! Giving them more time with their eight grandkids ... and each other.

Patients receive the therapy for seven weeks before surgery, and then after for about 46 weeks. Steve has scans of his lymph nodes every three months, and so far, there is no evidence of the cancer returning. Dr. Davar says patients receiving Opdivo alone for recurrent melanoma before surgery have a response rate of about 18 to 25 percent.

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