New research could bring hope in battle against Huntersville eye cancer cluster

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — There could be new hope in the battle against a rare eye cancer plaguing dozens of patients in the Huntersville area.

For years, Channel 9 has followed the alarming number of ocular melanoma cases and the unsuccessful efforts to find a cause -- whether from the environment or due to genetics.

The disease usually impacts five out of a million people, but more than two dozen people in our region have fought the disease.

If ocular melanoma spreads to a patient’s liver, the outlook is grim because this cancer doesn’t respond well to chemotherapy or radiation. It quickly grows out of control and ultimately, it claims their life.

Channel 9′s Allison Latos is getting a look at new research underway right now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Researchers like Dr. Jackie Bower are working to find a way to stop the aggressive cancer from being able to spread.


“The problem is, once you detect the metastasis in the liver, you basically have six months to live,” Bower said.

Kenny Colbert’s daughter, Kenan, was only 28 when she lost her battle with the rare eye cancer in 2014.

“It was about 18 months for her before it metastasized,” he said.

Because ocular melanoma doesn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation, Dr. Bower says they’re working to create a targeted gene therapy.

“To get rid of these active proteins and kill them and decrease the number of metastases,” she said. “We might be able to save the vision. Because if the tumor is too large, they have to remove the eye. Or they have radiation -- but either way, the patient goes blind.”

The research could take months, maybe years. That’s a difficult wait for patients who are seeking treatment, but the potential could be lifechanging -- and life-saving.

“This is great that we’ve got something new taking place,” Colbert said. “At least we can check it off the list and say ‘we investigated that.’”


It might be too late for Kenan -- and Meredith Stapleton, Summer Heath and Jessica Boesmiller, who all died from the cancer -- but it provides hope to all the other people out there.

Dr. Bower told Channel 9 the gene therapy would likely be an injection that could be administered right into the tumor.

So far, researchers are seeing success with it in a dish. Next, they will have to test it in animals. If there’s success there, then they would need to seek permission from the FDA to treat human patients.

(WATCH BELOW: As questions still loom, eye cancer survivor speaks up following Huntersville mother’s death)