Raising Awareness About Melanoma

May 22, 2000
News Office: Leslie Harris (415) 885-7277

The challenge of finding effective treatments for melanoma is more than skin deep.

"What makes melanoma so frustrating for physicians and patients is it's the kind of cancer that doesn't respond to chemotherapy as well as some other cancers do," said Dr. Mohammed Kashani-Sabet, co-director of the UCSF Melanoma Center and a dermatologist at UCSF Medical Center. "That's why it has us scurrying for treatment options."

To raise awareness about this form of skin cancer, the UCSF Melanoma Center hosted an educational conference earlier this month as part of Melanoma Awareness Month. More than 100 people packed into Mount Zion's Herbst Hall to learn about melanoma, treatments for the disease and to hear from patients living with melanoma.

The forum was also an opportunity to publicly acknowledge Roma Auerback, who made a donation to the UCSF Cancer Center in memory of her late husband Marvin Auerback who died from the disease. Her gift helped create the Marvin and Roma Auerback Melanoma Research Laboratory in the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center research building at Mount Zion. Ongoing research in the Auerback laboratory includes the development of a genetic diagnostic test for melanoma and the development of targeted therapies for advanced melanoma.

Melanoma is a skin cancer that begins in the melanocytes, the cells that produce skin pigment known as melanin. Though it accounts for only 4 percent of all skin cancer cases, melanoma is responsible for 79 percent of all skin cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. Moreover, the incidence of melanoma is rising faster than any other cancer in the U.S. population. About 7,700 people in the United States are expected to die of melanoma this year, according to the cancer society. Melanoma is almost always curable in its early stages.

"Early diagnosis and surgical treatment remain the best strategies for successful management of this disease," Kashani-Sabet, a UCSF assistant clinical professor, said.

But once melanoma has metastasized, or spread from the skin to distant organs, physicians must use other treatment options, including chemotherapy. But chemotherapy shrinks only 15 percent to 40 percent of all tumors, Kashani-Sabet said. "It's a platform therapy that needs to be improved or maybe even replaced," he said.

UCSF physicians are also using a newer treatment for advanced melanoma, immunotherapy. Immunotherapy helps the immune system to see and kill cancer cells.

"It's recruiting the immune system to recognize and destroy tumors, like a search and destroy mission in the entire body," Kashani-Sabet said.

UCSF physicians administer immunotherapy drugs interferon alpha and interleukin-2, proteins that activate the immune system. Both drugs can shrink metastatic melanomas in about 10 to 20 percent of patients, according to the American Cancer Society.

UCSF investigators also are using chemo-immunotherapy for treatment of advanced disease. This aggressive practice combines chemotherapy and immunotherapy, shrinking 50 to 60 percent of all tumors. Other treatments being developed include vaccine and gene therapy.

For more information about melanoma treatments available at UCSF Medical Center, call (415) 885-7546.