Putting Melanoma into Remission

BOSTON At age 20, Melissa Parrelli planned on living her dreams, but it was her nightmare that came true when she heard her diagnosis.

"The doctors translated it to skin cancer and my whole world turned upside down basically," Parrelli recalled to Ivanhoe.

The sun is to blame for most melanomas, but doctors are now discovering a gene called KIT. It can trigger mucosal melanomas to grow in places like the mouth and throat.

Researchers believe an abnormality in the KIT gene allows the tumor to grow, but a drug used to treat other cancers, called Gleevec (imatinib mesylate), appears to put this type of melanoma in remission.

"The Gleevec actually goes in and blocks that gene that is turned on and kind of shuts the switch off," F. Stephen Hodi, M.D., an instructor of medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, explained to Ivanhoe.

A PET scan of an elderly woman shows how her melanoma started in her anal area and spread to her abdomen and chest; but after nine months on Gleevac, her tumor mass is much smaller.

"This patient went on to get Gleevec and had a dramatic response from just a few weeks, to the drug, where more than eighty percent of her tumor shrunk," Dr. Hodi said.

KIT mutations are found in a small percentage of cases, but understanding the gene could unlock the mystery of other melanomas.

"It makes me feel better knowing doors are opening and once you are in that exploration stage, you never know what you can find," Parrelli said.

The goal is to use this development to find new therapies for those suffering from skin cancer, a disease that will hit one in five Americans this year.

The patient treated with Gleevec is still doing well nine months later. There are some possible side effects including water retention and rashes.


Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

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