Melanoma Vaccine Still in the Works at UVa Medical Center

By: Bianca Spinosa Email
By: Bianca Spinosa Email

May 10, 2009

For University of Virginia fourth years, exams are done and graduation is still a week away. That means many students are heading to the beach, but as they soak up that sun, doctors say they're also increasing their risk for skin cancer.

Melanoma is the second most common type of cancer in young women, and it's also the deadliest type of skin cancer, according to the American Melanoma Foundation.

University of Virginia doctors are leading the way in trying to get a melanoma vaccine approved by the FDA.

Many, like 4th-year UVA student Paul Beattie, have been affected by melanoma. "I know it is deadly. I had an uncle who had melanoma," says Beattie.

Imagine getting a shot for the deadly skin cancer the same way you'd get a shot for the flu.

The Professor of Surgery at UVA, Dr. Craig Slingluff, and his team of cancer researchers have been working for years to develop a vaccine made up of melanoma cells that can't replicate in the body.

"There have been challenges in developing the melanoma vaccine, but we do induce immune responses against the components of the vaccine," says Dr. Slingluff, Director of the Melanoma Team at UVA.

The vaccine is in the experimental stages, so doctors say you should still take basic sun precautions.

"If you just must go out, or have some reason to go out, the next best protection [to being indoors] is protective clothing...a big wide-brimmed hat is great," says Dr. Slingluff.

"Sunscreen every time I go to the beach or go outside for a long time," says New Zealand resident and UVA student, Thomas Everett on his skin-care regime.

The best time to be outside in the summer is around sunset because between 11am and 3 pm are the hottest parts of the day. Doctors say that's when your most likely to be exposed to dangerous UVA/UVB rays.

The vaccine did well in trials, but it's not deemed safe enough by the FDA yet.

"We're seeing encouraging things, and I think there's a lot of promise in that direction, but the first thing is to catch [melanoma] early and treat it early surgically," says Dr. Slingluff.

Paul Beattie says he'd take the vaccine if it becomes available.

"If it was like any other vaccine that I got at the doctor's office, I don't see why I wouldn't take it."

Researchers are optimistic that a melanoma vaccine could move forward after promising results in a prostate cancer vaccine this year.

A fundraiser and concert called "Melanoma Madness" at The Park near the UVA Law School had been planned for the first weekend in May, but it's been re-scheduled because of weather. It will be held in either June or July.

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