Doctor promotes controversial treatment for melanoma

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Advanced kidney and skin cancers often do not respond to treatment in their later stages, but there is a Baton Rouge doctor who says there is an older treatment that can actually stop those diseases in their tracks.

In 2008, pharmacist Kevin Tomb was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a form of kidney cancer. Doctors removed his kidney and treated the cancer. But a few years later, a follow up exam revealed bad news.

"We were doing a six month test and they saw spots on the lung," said Tomb.

It's news that every cancer patient fears his cancer had spread. His prognosis was grim. Advance forms of renal cell carcinoma and melanoma skin cancer can be especially deadly because they can easily spread to other organs. Once that happens, a patient's life is often numbered in months.

"We expect 10,000 people in the US this year to die from melanoma and more than that from renal cell carcinoma," said oncologist Dr. Gerald Miletello.

Existing treatments, like chemotherapy, can only slow down these cancers, but there is an older treatment first used 20 years ago that Miletello said can stop the disease in its tracks.

"It is the only treatment that has the potential, I don't know if you say cure, but if someone is alive 13 years, there is an excellent chance it's not coming back," said the oncologist.

Interleukin 2, or IL2, is an intensive, in-hospital treatment that stimulates a patient's immune system to fight cancer cells. Patients receive two different five-day treatments. A follow up is done six weeks later. If there is success, additional treatments are added.

However, only a few doctors nationwide offer IL2 as treatment. Miletello said the drug has a stigma that lingers from its early days of use. When it was first introduced, Miletello said doctors did not know the best way to handle side effects and toxicity of the treatment.

Side effects include nausea, tremors and water retention, which can affect a patient's blood pressure and breathing. Early treatments were not always successful. However, Miletello added a lot has changed in 20 years. Now, specially-trained nurses closely monitor and evaluate patients in every step of the treatment.

Medicine is used to manage side effects and patients recover quickly after the last dose is given. Also, only certain patients qualify for the treatment as well, about 10 percent of cases.  Patients must be in good shape, aside from the cancer, and able to care for themselves.

Tomb was one of those patients. As a pharmacist, he did his research and quickly agreed to undergo the treatment. Two years later, he's still cancer free and planning for years ahead.

"If you have a chance and you're capable of doing the treatment, don't hesitate," said Tomb.

He added he doesn't understand why more doctors do not offer IL2 as a choice for patients.

Miletello said another hesitation by doctors to use IL2 is outdated information. That's why he is participating in a nationwide clinical trial to try to boost the effectiveness of the treatment for metastatic melanoma by combining it with another drug. The clinical trial is recruiting 150 patients nationwide.

Copyright 2013 WAFB. All rights reserved.