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One step nearer to a skin cancer vaccine?

Dr Conal Perrett, Consultant Dermatologist The Devonshire Clinic, comments on an exciting new study showing that a skin cancer vaccine can help treat patients with advanced melanoma skin cancer.

The study is published in a leading journal but the full development of a skin cancer vaccine could still be several years away.

What is a cancer vaccine?

When researchers talk about cancer vaccines, they don’t mean a childhood injection that protects you from cancer in later life. It has long been thought that if we knew more about cancer antigens – the little flag-like molecules that stick out all over the surface of a cancer cell – it might be possible to develop a vaccine against them.

The idea of a cancer vaccine is that it is tailored to each individual person with cancer. Their cancer cells are studied, the flag-like antigens are identified, and a vaccine is made to give to that person by injection. As their body responds by producing an immune response to the components of the vaccine, this enables the body to destroy the cancer cells more easily.

No cancer vaccine has yet been developed but there has been some exciting news recently that suggests we are getting close. Researchers in the USA have been busy analysing the cancer antigens on malignant melanomas, skin cancers that are extremely dangerous and aggressive.

Unlike other skin cancers, melanomas are more likely to spread within the skin and often to other parts of the body. They are more difficult to treat than other types and have the highest fatality rate.

Melanomas are aggressive because their DNA has become completely messed up. Instead of having just a few mutations in their DNA, they have hundreds or even thousands. This means that the flag-like antigens they show on the surface are different in every patient with melanoma.

Trialling a potential vaccine against melanoma skin cancer

The respected journal Science has just published a study on just three patients who were given a personalised cancer vaccine after the cancer antigens on their melanomas were studied. Each vaccine for each person was different and took 3 months to prepare. But when it was given to the patients, they all did much better. The vaccine stimulated their immune systems to attack the cancer cells within their melanoma.

  • One patient no longer shows any sign of cancer.
  • The second patient still has melanoma but the tumours are not developing or growing.
  • The third patient had a large tumour, which shrank significantly after the vaccine was given. It is now small and stable and shows no signs of re-growing.

Researchers are cautious but optimistic

This type of clinical trial is often called a proof of concept study. It demonstrates that the principle of a cancer vaccine is a valid one, even if the techniques and details need much more study.

In addition to treating melanoma skin cancers, cancer vaccines could also be developed against other types of cancer that show a huge number of genetic mutations – such as aggressive lung cancers and breast cancers that carry the BRCA1 mutation.

This type of cancer vaccine is going to take a lot more time to develop and it is hoped that the time to generate the vaccine for each patient will reduce from three months.

“This is very good news,” comments Dr Conal Perrett, Consultant Dermatologist The Devonshire Clinic and a leading UK expert in skin cancer. ‘Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer and kills over 2000 people every year in the UK. It is the fifth most common cancer and accounts for one in every 100 deaths that occur due to any type of cancer.”

“This preliminary study highlights the potential of harnessing the immune response to target skin cancer. Further studies are now required to take forward this concept of personalised vaccines for skin cancer.”

Find out more

If you are interested in finding out more about the private treatments available for skin cancer, or the would like skin cancer screening, please contact us to arrange an appointment with Dr Conal Perrett or one of his team of dermatologists at The Devonshire Clinic

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Holiday sun linked to skin cancer risk

More than 5,700 people in the UK aged 65 and over are now being diagnosed every year with malignant melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer – compared to only 600 in the middle of the 1970s. Although all age groups are showing an increase, the rise is the most dramatic in this older age group.

Dr Conal Perrett, Consultant Dermatologist and a leading expert in skin cancer at The Devonshire Clinic, a leading private skin clinic London, says that the latest figures highlight the growing skin cancer epidemic we have seen emerging over the last 30-40 years.

“Skin cancer is linked to sun exposure and these figures are a reflection of the proliferation of cheap package holidays and air travel, as well as the desire to acquire a suntan. It is only years later that the potentially dangerous effects of the sun on our skin are seen…”

It’s well known that skin cancer is linked to sun exposure. Sunbathing without sun protection, getting sunburn and not covering up when the sun is at its hottest in the middle of the day all increase skin cancer risk.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, when cheap package holidays to resorts abroad first became affordable for the average family in the UK, people were not aware of the damage the sun could do to their skin.

Having a deep tan was considered ‘healthy’ and sunbathing on a European beach was the height of luxury, a treat for the rest of the year spent working hard. While parents took care to make sure their children didn’t burn, the young adults going on holiday back then were less worried about themselves.

Four or five decades later, the skin damage that resulted from those holidays has been linked with the current increase in skin cancer in elderly people.

All cancers are more likely the older you get, but having sunburn just once a year when on holiday seems to be enough to increase the risk of all skin cancers. This includes the most aggressive, malignant melanoma, which can spread to other parts of the body and can be fatal. Over 2000 people in the UK die from malignant melanoma each year.

Read more about skin cancer

 How to stay safe in the sun

Dr Perrett’s advice is in line with that of other leading experts and the British Association of Dermatologists:

To avoid skin damage due to ultra violet light:

  • Cover up – wear a tee-shirt in the hottest part of the day. Make sure the material is not too thin – you can get sunburn through some fabric. Wear a hat and sunglasses.
  • Use a high quality sunblock – at least factor 30 and a reputable brand. Apply every 3-4 hours and after swimming.
  • Stay in the shade – particularly in the hottest part of the day. Locals retire for a siesta for good reasons.
  • No sunbeds – never be tempted to use a sunbed to pre-tan or to maintain a holiday tan. Spray tans are extremely good these days and will give you a tanned appearance without the danger.

Sun awareness week

Every year in the UK, the British Association of Dermatologists runs an awareness campaign. This aims to let people know how to stay safe in the sun during their holidays. And during the British Summer, because getting sunburned at home also increases your risk of skin cancer.

In 2015, Sun Awareness week is 5-11 May.

You also need to think about…

Dr Perrett adds some reminders about situations in which you can get sunburnt, even if you think you are playing safe:

  • Spring sunshine – even in the UK we do have some warm sunny days early in the year – Easter this year has been very warm for most of the country. You still need sunscreen because even this ‘weak’ sunlight can cause skin damage.
  • Hazy sunshine – the sun’s ultraviolet rays can penetrate mist and haze so take care in situations such as a sea mist or a hazy but warm summer day.
  • At the seaside – the air feels cooler by the sea, particularly in UK resorts. Don’t be fooled – if the sun is shining, use sunscreen. The rays are reflected back from the water and are still dangerous.
  • Snow and sunshine – going on a skiing holiday? You can get sunburnt in January in the freezing cold without proper sunscreen. Like water, the snow is a great reflector so those ultraviolet rays are extremely intense.