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Skin Deep

Dr. Vernon Sondak says immune-stimulating drugs are the next frontier. Photo: Jeffrey Camp

Dr. Vernon Sondak doesn't want anyone to get the wrong idea. Medical researchers aren't working on a melanoma vaccine just so sun fanatics can lie by a pool all day and never have to worry about skin cancer. Rather, the research is focused on treating people who already have melanoma. The goal is to create a vaccine that will spur the immune system to kill the cancer cells -- and there's hope, too, that such a vaccine might also keep the cancer from coming back.

Some research shows promise. For example, Sondak, division chief of cutaneous oncology at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, has been following the progress of ANTI-CTLA4, a drug that's the focus of at least two clinical studies. If it works, the treatment would rev up a melanoma sufferer's immune system, possibly allowing it to selectively kill the cancer.

Skin Cancer Deaths
in Florida

? 557 ( 2002 )
? 628 ( 2003 )
? 626 ( 2004 )

Source: 2006 Florida Statistical Abstract

"Immune-stimulating agents like this will really be the next frontier, but it's going to take awhile," Sondak says. "The analogy I like to make is these drugs take the brakes off the immune system. The immune system inherently is kind of slow to get started and quick to turn off to avoid overreacting. And so there are powerful brake systems in there. We can turn those brakes off now, but what happens to a car that has no brakes? It kind of has a tendency to go out of control, especially if we don't have a steering wheel on that car."

Other promising research includes ongoing work at the University of Florida, where Howard Johnson, an immunology professor at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has developed a vaccine that seems to protect mice from melanoma. It's still to be determined, though, if the vaccine can help people.

Dr. Marta Rendon examines a patient at her Boca Raton practice.


? When you go outside, wear protective clothing and apply a sun block that provides UVA and UVB protection with a SPF ranking of 30 or more.

? Dr. Marta Rendon, a Boca Raton dermatologist, says pay attention to your moles, particularly those that are changing or are irregularly shaped. "It's important to recognize your moles," she says. "See a doctor once a year, and get your skin examined."

? Kids are particularly at risk. Rendon, for example, says more of her teenage patients have abnormal moles that have the potential to become cancer. "Seventy to 80% of all the sun exposure you get in your entire life you get by the time you're 18 years old," says Sondak. "So the die is already cast for a lot of our children by the time they get out of high school.

Elementary schools should have shaded areas where children are sent out at recess or P.E. Hats should be encouraged and not outlawed. Kids have to know that it's cool to wear sunscreen and not, you know, nerdy."

Sun Wise?

It's one of cancer's most avoidable forms, but 4,380 Floridians will be diagnosed with melanoma this year, according to the American Cancer Society. The group also estimates that 8,110 people nationwide will die from it. But the skin cancer story isn't entirely bleak. Researchers are working toward more effective treatments, and doctors say that by simply protecting yourself from the sun you'll likely never get melanoma.