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USC researchers reveal promising melanoma vaccine, other findings at ASCO

Nearly three-quarters of patients with metastatic melanoma who received an investigational vaccine at USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center remain disease-free after the treatment, according to results released at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Jeffrey S. Weber, Lucille and Berle Adams Chair in Cancer Research and associate professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine, presented the findings May 31 at the conference in Chicago.

Patients in the phase I/II study had metastatic melanoma treated through surgery and were considered at high risk for disease relapse. Of the 19 patients who received the vaccine, 14 continue disease-free, Weber said. Patients had either stage-3 or -4 melanoma.

Medarex Inc. of Princeton, N.J., makes the MDX-010 antibody, which was given to patients eight times: once a month for six months and then once every three months for six months. MDX-010 was given in combination with a vaccine consisting of various melanoma-related peptides and an experimental substance—Montanide—thought to boost immune response to the peptides. Patients received one of three possible doses of MDX-010, and every patient who received the highest dose of MDX-010 continues disease-free. MDX-010 is a human antibody against CTLA-4, a molecule on T cells that is responsible for suppressing the immune response.

Temporary side effects in some patients included diarrhea, stomachache and uveitis, or inflammation within the eye.

Oncologists urgently seek better treatments for melanoma, a cancer that comprises only 4 percent of all skin cancers but accounts for 79 percent of all skin-cancer-related deaths. About 45 percent of patients with stage-3 melanoma (in which cancer has spread no further than nearby lymph nodes) survive five years after diagnosis, while only about 10 percent of those with stage-4 melanoma (in which the disease has spread to distant organs) live for five years after diagnosis.

Weber was one of numerous Keck School faculty members and fellows presenting findings at the ASCO annual meeting, a premier event for oncologists that draws tens of thousands of health professionals each year. Attendees also heard about the latest work in cancer prevention by the Keck School’s Malcolm Pike, Giske Ursin, John Daniels, Darcy Spicer and colleagues at the University of Utah and City of Hope Cancer Center, for example. The researchers hope to moderate hormone levels in young women to deter breast cancer. They do this by suppressing sex hormones and then adding back low levels of the hormones.

The scientists tested a drug combination in women at high risk for breast cancer due to BRCA mutations—women who might otherwise opt to have their breasts and ovaries removed. The women’s breast densities decreased by about a quarter over 12 months (breast density has been linked to breast cancer risk) while bone density and quality of life remained normal, they reported.

A small sampling of other USC research included these abstracts:

o Leslie Bernstein and colleagues at Vanderbilt University reported on factors affecting breast cancer treatment decision-making, such as education and income, among African-American and white women.

o Wu Zhang, a member of Heinz-Josef Lenz’s lab, presented preliminary findings indicating that epidermal growth factor receptor gene expression may identify patients at high risk for pelvic recurrence in rectal cancer treated with combined chemotherapy and radiation. ASCO honored Zhang with a Merit Award, one of only 100 such awards handed out to fellows for outstanding abstracts.

o Jan Stoelhmacher, also of Lenz’s lab, submitted data suggesting that assessing colorectal cancer patients’ genetic makeup for certain angiogenesis-related polymorphisms might predict which patients will experience distant cancer spread. Lenz and his group presented more than 20 abstracts in all, and Lenz was a discussant in a poster session.

o Eduard Panosyan, a pediatrics fellow at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, won a Merit Award for his presentation on Gln deamination and the efficacy of asparaginase therapy in children with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

o Derek Raghavan was among investigators looking at the drug flavopiridol in patients with advanced prostate cancer.

For news from ASCO and a full listing of abstracts from the meeting, go to and click on the meetings and education link.

USC researchers reveal promising melanoma vaccine, other findings at ASCO

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