"I'd rather be out of business one day when no one has this," ocular oncologist Dr. Prithvi Mruthyunjaya said recently. "Nothing would make me happier."
He was referring to ocular melanoma, a rare eye cancer that affects about 2,500 people per year in the United States.
Mruthyunjaya leads Stanford Medical Center's Ocular Oncology Program and is the new director of the Byers Eye Institute, which houses the ocular-oncology care center. He said his ultimate goal is to find a cure for the cancer and eradicate it completely, and his research efforts are focused on making that wish a reality.
Ocular melanoma can form in any part of the eye, including the eyelids and even behind the eye in the socket. While it's found to be most prevalent in people with fair skin and light eyes over the age 55, Mruthyunjaya said he has seen it affect patients as young as 2 years old and from various ethnic backgrounds. He described the disease as a "mysterious and indiscriminate" form of cancer.
When ocular melanoma is detected directly in the eye, doctors can treat it with a combination of surgery, radiation treatment and chemotherapy. But the challenge is when the disease spreads to other parts of the body. According to Mruthyunjaya, there is currently "no approved effective therapy to eradicate that."
Because ocular melanoma is so aggressive, between 40%-50% of patients will see the cancer metastasize in their lifetime. The disease has a five-year relative survival rate, depending on how far the cancer has spread, according to the American Cancer Society. Without treatment, however, the life expectancy is estimated at between two and eight months.
Before Mruthyunjaya's arrival three years ago, Stanford Medical Center didn't have the capacity to treat this aggressive and potentially lethal disease. However, more than two dozen patients have thus far been treated at the center under Mruthyunjaya's care.
On Sunday, Mruthyunjaya is partnering with the patient-led nonprofit A Cure In Sight to bring the "Lookin' for a Cure" 5K Fun Run/Walk to Palo Alto for its second year.
This weekend's race is a fundraiser supporting the Byers Institute's research efforts, including finding new ways to deliver chemo to the eye to avoid radiation therapy or eye removal as well as characterizing the genetics of ocular melanoma to better understand mutations occuring within the tumors, Mruthyunjaya said.
May is also National Melanoma Month, which acknowledges those affected by all forms of the disease. However, the more commonly known skin cancer and the rare ocular melanoma are very distinct diseases that are like "distant cousins who share the same last name," said Mruthyunjaya. The same principles of diagnosis, treatment, prognosis and education cannot be applied to all melanoma patients, he said.
Melody Kling Burchett, who heads A Cure in Sight, said that because ocular melanoma is extremely rare, it doesn't receive as much attention or funding compared to breast, lung and prostate cancers. This disparity is what prompted her to start the organization. She was diagnosed with ocular melanoma about eight years ago, and along her journey she came across many fellow patients who couldn't afford treatment.
"Something needed to be done," she said. "Too many people could not afford to go to their doctor for follow up care, and in any other cancer community that would not be acceptable."
Palo Altans affected by ocular melanoma had to travel to San Francisco for treatment prior to Mruthyunjaya's arrival at Stanford, Burchett said, adding that by supporting the "Lookin for a Cure" race, people are helping fund the Ocular Oncology Program's initiatives so local patients don't have to travel outside of their community to receive care.
"Dr. M is doing some great things with ocular melanoma research, and we need to support that, Burchett said. "Without funding his program, he can't do his research, and without research, we can't find a cure."
Last year, more than 100 people participated in the race and raised $15,000. This year, Burchett said A Cure in Sight hopes to have an even higher turnout and hit a goal of $20,000.
The run is set for Sunday, May 19. Registration begins at 8 a.m. and the race starts at 9 a.m. The course starts at the Byers Eye Institute located at 2452 Watson Court in Palo Alto and travels through the Baylands Nature Preserve. More information about the race can be found at lookinforacure.org.