NEW YORK (CBS 2) — Skin cancer is the most common and most curable type of cancer, unless it’s melanoma. This year there will be more than 68,000 cases of malignant melanoma in the U.S.  and nearly 9,000 deaths.

Dr. Max Gomez reports there’s an experimental drug to treat advanced melanoma that is having stunning success.

Melanoma is so deadly because it spreads when it’s still very small and at that point it’s very tough to treat or cure. While this new drug doesn’t work for all melanoma patients, for some, it’s been a lifeline. Like all drugs, it has side effects, but this one is very surprising.

Ipilimumab – ipi for short – doesn’t work for everyone, but the patients treated at NYU whose hair and eyelashes turned all white later had their tumors shrink completely.

In other words, white hair is a marker for the patients who are going to be helped by the drug.

The drug was being fast-tracked for approval and the FDA was expected to review it in December.

Gavin McGrath is only 51 but his hair is already white and he couldn’t be  happier about it.  “I said ‘Oh my goodness, this is great, I’m alive to see it’,” he said.

The New Jersey teacher’s dark hair started turning white several months ago as a side effect of taking ipilimumab to treat his stage four melanoma.

Surgery and chemotherapy didn’t work and he was running out of time. “All my options had been tried. I felt this was best the opportunity. I was willing to do it because I had nothing to lose,” he said.

A recent study found in about 20-percent of patients who took it, it added nearly a year or more to their lives. It works by supercharging the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer.

“This is clearly your immune system that’s attacking melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells that not only cause melanoma, but cause you to have pigmentation,” said Dr. Anna Pavlick of the NYU Cancer Institute.

Now considered disease-free, Gavin ‘s new favorite color is white, but for Tracy Pantahos,  who was also considered disease-free,  the white was something she wants to cover up.

“I’m only 38. I shouldn’t have white hair yet,” she said. Dying her hair is something she can live with.

The same cells that give your hair and skin their color are the same kind of cells that give rise to melanoma. Those melanocytes make melanin, that’s tiny little granules of pigment in cells in the hair follicles and in the deep layer of skin.

So if ipi is killing off the cells giving your hair color then it’s killing off the other pigment cells that have turned cancerous.

Now researchers will try to figure out why ipi only works in some patients.


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