The body could soon hold its own against melanoma, according to a new study. Researchers at Loyola University Medical Center have created a new type of experimental vaccine that “trains” the body’s immune system to recognize and destroy tumor cells. The vaccine, which is currently undergoing a Phase 1 trial, could revolutionize treatment strategies for one of our most common cancers.

The research effort centers on an innovative delivery mechanism whereby a patient’s own T-cells are artificially prepared to do battle with rogue cells that drive tumor growth. According to principal investigator Joseph Clark, the project is the first of its kind. "This clinical trial is a unique attempt to manipulate a person's own immune system to attack their cancer in a more effective and specific manner,” he said in a press release.

Judging by lab results, the experimental treatment is as effective as it is mind boggling. Basically, a substantial chunk of the patient’s T-cell volume is extracted and sent to a genetic"boot camp," where the cells receive two key genes that allow them to target cancerous cells. In the meantime, the patient undergoes intense chemotherapy that dramatically reduces his or her T-cell count. Finally, the new cancer-killing T-cells are reintroduced to the patient’s body, where they (ideally) begin to proliferate and subdue tumor growth.

Aside from assessing the safety of the treatment, the Phase 1 clinical trial will help the developers determine the optimal dose. If it passes Phase 1, it will move on to Phase 2, which will quantify the effect. According to Clark and his colleagues, the finalized product could save the lives of countless patients diagnosed with metastatic melanoma.

"This is a terrible, devastating disease. It starts on the skin and can spread to just about anywhere in the body," he told reporters. "We need better treatments. Our clinical trial is designed for patients who have no other options."

Today, melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer, and the leading cause of death from skin disease. In the U.S. alone, upwards of 76,000 people are diagnosed with the disease annually. Each year, almost 10,000 patients die. However, if caught early, the prognosis is often positive. Health officials recommend that individuals concerned about a new mole use the “ABCDE”-method to make a preliminary assessment:

  • Asymmetry: the shape of one half does not match the other
  • Border: the edges are ragged, blurred or irregular
  • Color: the color is uneven and may include shades of black, brown and tan
  • Diameter: there is a change in size, usually an increase
  • Evolving: the mole has changed over the past few weeks or months