Patient Clint Cook is typical. For him and his wife Marcia, sailboats were more than a hobby, they were a passion. The couple competed in races that sometimes took them from San Francisco Bay to Santa Cruz and required hours in the sun.
"When I got the call for the melanoma it was certainly a setback but not a surprise," Clint Cook said.
He'd had small skin lesions removed in the past, but tests soon revealed that this melanoma was an aggressive form. So aggressive that Cook eventually turned to Dr. Adil Daud and an investigational treatment currently under trial at UCSF. It employs an electronic device to help deliver a unique cancer fighting agent.
"You expose your melanoma cell to a very transient but strong electrical stimulus; you open a small pore or multiple small pores in each melanoma cell," Daud said.
The UCSF team injects a DNA plasma into the area of the melanoma. It's genetically engineered to produce a protein called interluken-12. Next, they deliver a 1,300-volt current into the same area, using a device manufactured by San Diego-based OncoSec. The process is known as electroporation. The electric shock causes pores in the cancer cells' membrane to open just long enough to allow the plasma to enter. Once inside, the cells begin producing interluken proteins, which are treated as an alarm signal by the body's immune system, which then attacks the cancer cells.
Daud says in a percentage of cases the immune response has continued well beyond the treated area, with the body's immune response targeting even melanoma cells that were not producing interluken-12.
"And you can have responses not just to the tumors you've injected, that's understandable, but even to even to tumors you haven't touched, even to tumors in other parts of the body that you have done anything to or injected. So we think that it's an immune memory that forms," Daud said.
About half the patients experienced the overall improvement, including untreated areas.
For Cook and his wife Marcia, the early results offer hope of enjoying the outdoor activities they love, as they head into retirement.
"We've pooled our resources and bought a 2-year-old convertible," Cook said. "So we can maybe go to the Grand Canyon. I've never been to the Grand Canyon."
Written and produced by Tim Didion