Sarah Cannon - May 15, 2017

Treatment types for melanoma skin cancer can vary, depending on skin type, cancer type, how much the cancer has spread and by its stage. Common treatment options for melanoma include surgery, targeted therapy, chemotherapy, radiation, clinical trials and immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy that uses targeted drugs to convince the body's immune system to recognize that there is something foreign in the body (cancer) and to attack the cells threatening it. In recent years, immunotherapies have become the standard of care treatment for certain cases of melanoma.

Immunotherapy works by using checkpoints which are proteins on cells inside your immune system that need to be turned on or off in order to start an immune response. Cancer itself spreads because it camouflages its cells to look like normal cells, when they are not. Immunotherapy drugs are able to target these checkpoint proteins to then help restore the immune response against harmful melanoma cells.

Targeted immunotherapy drugs for melanoma may include:

  • Checkpoint inhibitors
    • PD-1 inhibitors - drugs that target the PD-1 protein on immune system T-cells that normally help keep these cells from attacking other cells in the body. By blocking PD-1, these drugs boost the immune system's response against melanoma cells and can often shrink tumors and help people live longer.
    • CTLA-4 inhibitor - drugs that boost the immune system's response and blocks a protein on T-cells that normally helps keep them in check, called CTLA-4.
  • Cytokines - proteins in the body that boost the immune system and are known to shrink advanced melanomas in about 10 to 20 percent of patients when used alone. Synthetic (man-made) cytokines are administered through an IV.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy - an altered virus made in a lab with the purpose of infecting the patient with a healthy' virus that kills cancer cells, as well as alerting the immune system to attack cancer cells on its own.

All of the above immunotherapy treatments are FDA-approved and are commonly used as melanoma treatment options. Immunotherapy drugs may be used alone, or in addition to other immunotherapy drugs. A melanoma treatment plan could also consist of a combination of immunotherapy and surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or other treatment options.

If you have questions about immunotherapy, you can talk to a registered nurse through askSARAH, the Sarah Cannon helpline available 24/7 - at 844.482.4812.