Doctors Using Herpes To Kill Cancer

Researchers Inject Herpes Virus Into Melanoma Lesion To Increase Immune Response

This year, 70,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma in the United States. Almost 9,000 will die from it. There hasn't been a treatment for melanoma in a decade, but now, doctors are using an STD to kill it.

"It's just like you're right there but they don't even know it," said Ira Dickstein, a melanoma patient.

Dickstein has spent the last seven years trying to find a cure for his cancer.

"I found a significant black and blue area on the inside of my toe. It was hidden. It was big enough when I could see it, when I looked at the bottom of my foot. That's when I knew there was something wrong, but I didn't know it was melanoma," Dickstein said.

From one toe, the melanoma spread above his knee.

"It's under the skin now," Dickstein said.

Dickstein is taking part in his third clinical trial, but it's the first time he's seen his lesions disappear.

"My melanoma actually retracted a bit," Dickstein said.

The lesions started to disappear when doctors injected them with a sexually transmitted disease.

"It can be engineered to specifically target cancer cells," said Dr. Gregory Daniels, a medical oncologist at the University of California, San Diego.

Daniels injected a form of the herpes virus directly into Dickstein's melanoma lesions.

When the body recognizes a virus is in the body, it increases a patient's immune response.

"Our body automatically recognizes that as a dangerous situation and attracts a response to it," Daniels said.

It's working for Dickstein.

"The lesions that were directly injected shrunk, and one disappeared completely. The others were going backwards," he said.

It's a good sign that his search for a cure is ending

Melanoma is more than 10 times more common in whites than in African-Americans. It occurs more in men than women and, unlike many other common cancers, melanoma has a wide age distribution. It occurs in younger as well as older people. In fact, it is one of the more common cancers diagnosed in teenagers.

MELANOMA: Melanoma is a type of cancer that begins in the melanocytes, cells that produce pigment melanin. Melanoma can also begin in other pigmented tissues such as the eyes or intestines. In 2009, an estimated 68,720 new cases of melanoma were diagnosed and about 8,600 deaths were accounted for, according to the National Cancer Institute.

TREATMENTS: The standard surgical procedure used to remove melanoma tumors is excision, or surgical removal, according to the Mayo Clinic. The procedure can be a complete cure for most patients with thin melanomas.

Another procedure used to treat melanoma, specifically on the head and neck, is Moh's surgery. Moh's can be used when the cancer has not yet spread to other areas of the body. During Moh's surgery, the surgeon removes the cancer layer by layer, guided by a microscope, until the whole tumor is gone.

Other options for treatment are radiation therapy, chemotherapy and experimental treatments such as immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a popular experimental treatment that encourages the body's own immune system to seek out and kill melanoma cells.

HERPES IN CANCER TREATMENT: Researchers at the University of California, San Diego are testing a type of immunotherapy for melanoma using engineered herpes viruses. Using a needle similar to that used for the flu vaccine, researchers inject the herpes virus into a melanoma lesion. The idea is the presence of the new virus alerts the body's immune system to attack the cancerous area. Daniels said the virus is engineered to be safe for non-cancerous cells, and the idea of using viruses to fight cancer has been around for hundreds of years.