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Researchers say they hope a new type of immune cell therapy can be effective in treating melanoma. Irina Efremova/Stocksy
  • Researchers say a new type of therapy using immune cells showed promise in a clinical trial in treating melanoma.
  • The potential treatment, known as TIL therapy, encourages immune cells to multiply as opposed to strengthening them.
  • Experts say they hope this latest research will encourage federal regulators to approve TIL therapy for the treatment of melanoma.

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers.

While melanoma accounts for only about 1% of skin cancers, it causes a majority of skin cancer deaths.

When melanoma is diagnosed in its early stages, most people respond well to treatment. But when the disease is not detected early, it often spreads to other parts of the body and treatments become more challenging.

There has to date only been only modest success in treating advanced melanoma, but there is potentially encouraging news on that front.

European researchers recently announced at the ESMO annual health conference in Paris that tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) therapy, a new treatment for advanced melanoma, was more effective than ipilimumab, the leading existing therapy, in a phase 3 clinical trial.

TIL therapy is not widely known by the public and has not been approved yet by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

However, it has been around for several years in clinical trials and there has been much anticipation about its potential.

TIL therapy is somewhat similar to CAR-T cell therapy, a recently developed immunotherapy treatment, but TIL therapy involves encouraging immune cells to multiply as opposed to strengthening them.

CAR-T has shown to be effective in blood cancers such as lymphoma, some types of leukemia, and more recently multiple myeloma.

But unlike blood cancers, experts say, solid tumors typically have a number of different cell types that vary between cancer types.

This makes finding a CAR-T target challenging in solid tumors.

Dr. John Haanen, who is associated with the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam, is the lead author of the clinical trial.

He said in a press statement that this study shows for the first time in a randomized, controlled trial that cell therapy can be efficacious and beneficial for patients with solid cancers.

“For patients with melanoma, we see a 50 percent reduction in the chance of progression of the disease or dying from the disease, which is absolutely practice-changing,” he said.

“This is the first time that a TIL-based approach has been compared directly to standard-of-care treatment, in this case, ipilimumab,” Haanen added. “So, we are now able to position TIL treatment much better in the management landscape for patients with metastatic melanoma.”

In the trial, 168 people with metastatic melanoma were randomly assigned to receive either TIL treatment or ipilimumab. Ipilimumab is typically used in people who don’t respond to a first-line treatment called anti-PD-1 therapy. Nearly all of the participants in the trial had not responded to that treatment.

The participants were followed for a median of almost three years.

Patients on TIL therapy had a 49% reduction in disease progression and death, compared to 21% for people taking ipilimumab.

The study participants are reportedly still being tracked, but the median overall time of survival for people who received TIL therapy was more than two years, compared to slightly more than 1.5 years for those receiving ipilimumab.

Dr. Sandip Patel, an oncologist at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, specializes in cancer immunotherapy and early-phase clinical trials involving immunotherapies across all types of cancer.

He is focused on developing personalized therapies that stimulate a person’s immune system to attack their specific tumor.

“We have been doing TIL therapy clinical trials for melanoma, as well as in other solid tumor cancers such as lung cancer and cervical cancer,” Patel told Healthline.

Patel, who was not involved in this recent study, thinks that this latest research could be the one that gets this therapy approved by the FDA.

“TIL therapy isn’t approved yet, but it is likely to get approved soon, and if and when that happens, we are prepared to give it out on day one,” he said.

Dr. George Coukos, who is with Lausanne University Hospital and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Switzerland, was also not involved in the study.

“TIL therapy is an extraordinary therapy,” he said in a press statement. “TIL is a new paradigm for treating cancers and, as these results clearly demonstrate, it’s efficacious and feasible at a large scale. The findings raise hopes for the management and potential cure of metastatic solid tumors.”