When Dr. Sean Morrison and a handful of researchers at UT Southwestern placed two lists side by side, it was as if the air had been pulled from the room. On one list were patients being treated for melanoma -- skin cancer -- and patients who had died from it. On the other list were mice who had been injected with cells extracted from the patients' melanomas.
"It was a chiling moment," Morrison, a researcher with the Children's Medical Center Research Institute, tells Unfair Park, "because we realized we knew before the patients knew who was going to die of melanoma."
If a patient was being successfully treated for a less aggressive form of skin cancer, the corresponding mouse fared similarly. If the cancer spread throughout the patient's body, so too did it spread through the mouse. For each of the 25 patients, the fate of the mouse that bore his or her cancer cells was mirrored. For the first time, science could predict to a certainty whether a cancer that kills nearly 50,000 people a year will metastasize. The research article was published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
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"It's true that if I were diagnosed with melanoma tomorrow, I'd put myself into these mice to find out if I have a really bad melanoma or not a bad melanoma," Morrison says.
The next step, he believes, is the development of a genetic test capable of identifying the markers of aggressive skin cancer. "Right now, when a patient is diagnosed with melanoma, after it's treated surgically he goes back to the doctor every three months, and the doctor looks for bumps," he says. "You go instantly from good prognosis for the disease to a bad one."
With a genetic test, physicians can determine early on whether more aggressive treatment is needed. And with mice that predict the spread of skin cancer in humans, more effective therapies can be developed by studying the mechanisms of metastasis.
"I think this discovery is going to dramatically accelerate the path to improved treatment in melanoma."