To cure a disease, it seems counterintuitive to treat patients with a virus. But that is exactly how Robert Andtbacka, an associate professor of surgery, has helped skin cancer patients at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
The treatments are still in clinical trials, but already Andtbacka and a team of doctors have seen great responses in eliminating melanoma. The doctors inject a specialized virus on or under the skin at the infected site. The immune system then attacks the virus as well as the cancer cells. Andtbacka said the biggest plus of this treatment is the lack of side effects.
“The only side effects we see are discomfort at the injection site, like redness,” he said. “Sometimes there are shakes and chills like with flu shots.”
Current cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, can cause hair loss and vomiting, among other side effects.
With this new treatment, Andtbacka has to consider the risks for caretakers, who could possibly contract the virus while taking care of a family member with melanoma. So far, no evidence shows the virus has passed on to anyone.
Melanoma is the most deadly of the three types of skin cancer. It occurs in the deepest layer of skin tissue and is caused by high UV exposure. Garrett Harding, community outreach coordinator for prevention education at Huntsman Cancer Institute, said Utah has the highest rate of melanoma in the U.S. From 2007 to 2011, the rate of new melanoma cases was 32 per 100,000 people in Utah. He said the state’s elevation and people’s outdoor lifestyles may be to blame.
“The reality is that we live at a higher elevation, and because we are closer to the sun, we are more exposed to those harmful UV rays,” he said.
The Huntsman Cancer Institute studies all types of cancer, and Andtbacka believes this new treatment could be applied to breast, bladder and lung cancer as well. Research funding for the study comes from pharmaceutical companies and internal funding from the institute.
While there is still a long way before a definitive cure to cancer is found, Andtbacka said the future is brighter than it’s ever been before.
“We are much further ahead than we were a year ago and even further than we were five years ago,” he said. “We’ve never had as much hope as we do right now.”