Moffitt leads the way for FDA approval of revolutionary melanoma treatment

New drug combo saves Florida man from death

TAMPA - Patrick Wilkins is like many Floridians. He enjoyed the water and all the sun and fun that went with it until his legs starting swelling. He went for a CT scan.

"They found that it was a tumor," he said. "When they got it out it was the size of an orange."

That tumor turned out to be stage four melanoma that had metastasized.

"It was in his bones, it was in his hips, it was in his lungs," said Dr. Jeffrey Weber, director of melanoma research at Moffitt Cancer Center. "Ten years ago, even five years ago, metastatic melanoma at stage four was pretty much a death sentence."

But a team at Moffitt, led by researcher Keiran Smalley, came up with the idea of combining two drugs into one therapy to shut off the pathway for the type of melanoma Wilkins had. And it worked in clinical trials for many patients, Weber said.

"It wasn't ten percent or 20 percent," he said. "It was like 70 percent of patients were having major league responses."

Including Wilkins.

"What causes pain in cancer is the growth pushing up against nerve endings," Wilkins said. "They couldn't give me enough pain medications. I was in severe pain. I was on three doses of morphine and Percocet as needed. It just didn't work. I started these two drugs on Friday. I called Dr. Weber on Saturday and told him it's working. My pain stopped and it hasn't come back since."

And it's been about three years now. Wilkins said recent scans show he is 98 percent in remission. Due to the great trial results, the FDA fast tracked approval of this combination therapy.

"It was incredibly exciting," Smalley said. "For us, we can spend years carrying out experiments and things rarely end up in the clinic."

But this therapy is being used in the clinical setting. Wilkins had another scan Friday at Moffitt, but he's still on the combination therapy. The idea is that eventually cancers like this can be a controlled chronic disease like HIV or diabetes.

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