Melanoma begins when melanocytes, which are cells that produce melanin (the substance that colors the skin, hair and eyes), mutate and grow uncontrollably. Although melanoma is primarily a cancer of the skin, it can affect other parts of the body, including the eyes, mouth, genitals and anal area.

The standard therapies for melanoma include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy. Surgery remains the primary treatment for the disease. Of all the cancers immunotherapies have been tested on, melanoma is one of the most responsive cancers to the treatment, which is bringing new hope to people with the disease. For many people with melanoma, immunotherapy is successful in terms of shrinking tumors, reducing the risk of the cancer coming back and leading to longer life.

Multiple immunotherapies have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for melanoma. The first was a cytokine that was approved for treatment after surgery for patients at high risk of the cancer recurring. Cytokines are proteins made naturally in the body or made in a laboratory, and they act primarily by helping the various cells of the body’s immune system communicate. They are capable of stimulating the immune system or slowing it down to help it fight cancer.

Immunotherapy is also used to treat some metastatic melanomas (those that have spread to other parts of the body), either alone or in combination with other treatments. Additional immunotherapies, such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, have been approved over the years, making melanoma one of the few cancer types for which a variety of immunotherapies have been approved. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that block specific proteins and receptors from triggering a slowdown of the immune system.

Currently, immunotherapy to treat melanoma is a significant focus in cancer research and drug development. Multiple clinical trials are taking place to investigate new immunotherapies and combinations of currently approved immunotherapies, such as checkpoint inhibitors and personalized vaccines. Because melanoma has been so responsive to new immunotherapies, researchers are investigating whether some that are already approved for advanced or metastatic melanomas could be used for earlier stage melanomas.

As newer cancer treatments are discovered, they first become available in clinical trials for those who are eligible (see Clinical Trials). Talk to your doctor to see whether a clinical trial is right for you and to discuss all of the treatment options available for your type and stage of melanoma.


FDA-Approved  Immunotherapies for Melanoma
As of 10/20/2017
high-dose interleukin-2 (IL-2)
interferon alfa-2b (Intron A)
interleukin-2 (Aldesleukin, Proleukin)
ipilimumab (Yervoy)
nivolumab (Opdivo)
peginterferon alfa-2b (Sylatron)
pegylated interferon alfa-2b (PEG-Intron)
pembrolizumab (Keytruda)
talimogene laherparepvec (Imlygic)

Additional Resources


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