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Alumni newsmaker:
Jean-Claude Bystryn, SB'58

image: Class Notes headlineJean-Claude Bystryn, SB'58, is trying to stop melanomas with a vaccine. For the past five years, Jean-Claude Bystryn, SB'58, has focused his cancer research on an experimental vaccine for melanoma, a deadly skin cancer diagnosed in 45,000 Americans in 1999 alone. The use of such vaccines in the war against cancer--now regarded as revolutionary--was once controversial.

"When we first started working with this, nobody was thinking of treating cancer with vaccines," Bystryn says. "It was considered black magic. I was advised by many colleagues, 'When you talk about what you do, don't use the word 'vaccine,' because people are going to think you've gone off your rocker.'"

image: Bystryn searches for a vaccine (Photo by Evan Kafka/Liaison Agency)Despite the initial skepticism, Bystryn's vaccine has now reached the final stage of testing--a large-scale clinical trial of 600 to 800 patients over the next four years--before approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in melanoma patients nationwide. The National Cancer Institute has agreed to produce the vaccine for the large-scale testing. Meanwhile, Bystryn is recruiting medical centers to participate in the trials and working to secure funding.

To create his vaccine, the New York University dermatologist, who received his M.D. from NYU, isolates potential antigens--the elements in the cancer cell that differ from the components of a healthy cell. Then he injects them into the body in potent doses, building up the immune system to block the actual antigens of the cancer cells and destroy them.

"With cancers, where the disease progresses slowly, there's a lot of time available to build up your immune responses to fight against the cancer," Bystryn explains, "and so the vaccine can be given after you have the disease to boost the body's ability to fight against the person's own cancer."

So far, Bystryn has concentrated on treating high-risk cancer patients--those with a 40 percent or more chance of fatality--whose cancer has not yet progressed to the point of overtaking the entire immune system. But his long-term goal is to develop the vaccine to be safe and effective enough to administer to patients before they develop melanoma, thus preventing the disease all together.

After treating close to 700 melanoma patients in preliminary clinical trials, Bystryn is optimistic. Initial trials showed a 50 percent improved survival rate over the standard treatments, surgery and chemotherapy.

But the vaccine can't be approved by the Food and Drug Administration for at least six years, and Bystryn worries about the patients he cares for on a daily basis.

"There's a pleasure and immediacy of taking care of people that you just don't get doing basic research. It makes you appreciate the urgency, the need, and the difficulties of doing work in man," the physician says. "People who just do research sometimes get lost in the mice and the test tubes, and they lose the reality check that you need when you work with people. With medicine, the goal in the ultimate is to help." --B.B.

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