Patients receiving the vaccine had longer overall survival -- 17.6 months vs. 12.8 months for controls -- but that was not considered statistically significant. They also experienced a progression-free survival of 2.9 months vs. 1.6 months for those who didn't get the vaccine. Better still, 22 percent saw their tumors shrink, as compared with only 9.7 percent in the chemo group.
"This is amongst the first trials to show that cancer vaccines can be effective in patients," Hwu said. "This is the deadliest of skin cancers and, when it metastasizes, the median survival is less than a year. We sorely need new approaches."
"This is the first prospective randomized trial of this combination," said Dr. Margaret von Mehren, a medical oncologist with Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. "What struck me was the six-month survival difference between the two groups. That's a really long time for metastatic melanoma."
Also at the meeting, researchers showed for the first time that trastuzumab (Herceptin) -- a highly targeted biological drug widely used to treat certain kinds of breast cancer -- may also effective in patients with advanced gastric or stomach cancers who also take chemotherapy.
"This is the first biological to show a survival benefit in an advanced gastric cancer," said study author Dr. Eric Van Cutsem, a professor with University Hospital Gasthuisberg in Leuven, Belgium. "It reduced the risk of death by 26 percent."
Herceptin targets the HER2 receptors that are found on breast cancer cells in about a quarter of patients. In this trial, the same receptor was spotted on malignant cells in about 22 percent of gastric-cancer patients, the team said.
People receiving Herceptin lived a median of 13.8 months vs. 11.1 months for those receiving chemo alone. According to Cutsem, patients with advanced stomach cancer typically only live a median of nine to 11 months.
He recommended testing for HER2 in gastric cancer patients right away. Rather than simply repeating the same trial, he pressed for trials exploring new and different ways to use the drug.
"This is an extremely important study showing that, for a significant minority of patients, the first non-cytotoxic therapy to have any kind of effectiveness against this type of cancer," said Dr. Sonali Smith, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center, who moderated the press briefing. "I would consider this extremely promising, and repeating this study is not helpful to patients.
And in yet another example of more targeted, personalized cancer care, scientists in France reported on a possible biomarker -- a protein known as MSH2 -- that might predict which patients with non-small cell lung cancer will fare better on cisplatin-based chemotherapy.
MSH2 is one of a family of DNA repair genes, the irony being that the gene also repairs DNA purposely damaged by chemotherapy. Not surprisingly, then, patients with either low levels of MSH2 or none at all respond better to cisplatin treatment than patients with higher levels.
"The findings duplicate those of a prior study that showed similar results with a different DNA repair gene, ERCC1," noted Dr. George Simon, director of the thoracic oncology program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. "When these two genes are taken in combination, they seem to predict better than ERCC1 alone."