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New Melanoma Treatment Uses Patient's Own Immune System To Fight Their Cancer

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Melanoma is one of the most aggressive types of cancer and quickly spreads throughout the body unless it's caught early.

As CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez tells us, there is a new treatment that uses the patient's own immune system to fight their cancer.

After being diagnosed with stage four mucosal melanoma, a type different from skin melanoma, Toni English failed every cancer treatment doctors tried.

"We'd pretty much hit the end of the road for treatments. We'd done everything that I knew was out there," she said.

That's when her oncologist at the Orlando Health Cancer Institute told her about a clinical trial that fights her cancer by transforming cells from her own immune system. They're T-cells that had already infiltrated her tumor.

"Once the tumor is resected, we isolate the T-cells, expand it, proliferate it, give it additional medications to turn it on and make it more active," Dr. Sajeve Thomas said.

The engineered cells are then delivered back to the patient in a single infusion.

"You're taking those T-cells and expanding it to basically a clone army," Thomas said. "The number of cells that we can produce is anywhere from one billion to 150 billion."

Clinical trials of so-called TIL therapy for melanoma found tumors shrank or remained stable in four out of five patients, and many saw results in just a few weeks.

Looking at the latest scans of English's tumor, Thomas explained, "You can see, nothing there. The rest of the lungs look wide open... All that shrunk down within probably the first month or two."

"At that six weeks checkup after the treatment, when I came in the first time, and it was already showing a response. And that's when I really felt like I've got a chance at this," said English.

Nearly four years later, English is cancer-free and making plans for the future.

"The blip in the radar for us, the short bump in the road for us was worth the journey, because it has given me back the life that I've always dreamed I would have," she added.

This was a small trial and not all patients responded to the TIL therapy, but the fact some patients with terminal disease are alive and well months and even years later has prompted researchers to expand into clinical trials for patients with late stage lung, cervical, and head and neck cancers.

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